Business

Childcare issues - labour shortages and supporting the female workforce

Difficulties in accessing or affording appropriate childcare can present a significant hurdle to employment for all parents, particularly women
Difficulties in accessing or affording appropriate childcare can present a significant hurdle to employment for all parents, particularly women Difficulties in accessing or affording appropriate childcare can present a significant hurdle to employment for all parents, particularly women

FOLLOWING the record highs in job vacancies seen across Northern Ireland in the immediate post-pandemic period, reports now indicate that the jobs market is gradually ‘normalising’ with job listings decreasing for the first time in two years.

But with recruitment activity in the first quarter of the year still far exceeding anything that occurred before the pandemic (and remaining 41 per cent above the same time in 2019) it is clear the skills shortage that has dogged the market for some time has yet to be readily addressed.

So what needs to be done to bridge the gap?

In the short-term, businesses might need to look outside Northern Ireland for talent pools to fill capacity shortages.

In the longer term however, greater focus arguably needs to be placed on how we can revitalise the domestic labour market. In particular, given that economic inactivity in Northern Ireland is still significantly higher than in the rest of the UK, questions need to be asked about what exactly is preventing greater labour force participation here.

It should of course be acknowledged that the reasons behind economic inactivity can vary widely and may be the result of long-term sickness, disability or persons undertaking carer responsibilities.

But similar explanations are harder to find as to why Northern Ireland currently has the lowest female labour force participation rate of all nations and regions in the UK. Or why the employment rate for women in Northern Ireland has been consistently lower than for men over the past 10 years.

Some insights can be found in recent labour force surveys produced by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra). In one such survey, one of the most common reasons cited for economic inactivity among women in Northern Ireland was looking after family and home – which conversely was the least common reason given for inactivity amongst men.

The same report found that while over 94 per cent of employed men with dependent children work full time, just 60 per cent of employed women with dependent children find themselves in a position to do the same.

What this suggests is that childcare responsibilities have disproportionately restricted a greater share of female participation in the workforce than men, ultimately contributing to nearly a third of working age women remaining outside the labour market.

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to addressing the barriers facing women at work today, there is widespread consensus that difficulties in accessing or affording appropriate childcare can present a significant hurdle to employment for all parents, particularly women.

In this way, the cost of childcare in Northern Ireland requires urgent attention. While a major extension of free childcare for families in England was recently announced as part of the Budget, the benefits of these measures will unfortunately not extend to families in Northern Ireland.

However, given that the Executive will be distributed an equivalent amount of funding as part of the Barnett consequential, it is vital that such funds be earmarked specifically for use toward an ambitious, fully-funded childcare strategy in Northern Ireland that recognises childcare as part of our essential economic infrastructure. And the benefits of doing so are clear.

According to the Centre for Progressive Policy, investment in childcare could increase the total annual income of working mothers in the UK by up to £10 billion, generating up to £28 billion in economic output each year. If we are serious about closing the skills gap in Northern Ireland, let’s start by making it easier for working parents to play their part.

:: Zara Duffy is head of Northern Ireland at Chartered Accountants Ireland