Has Northern Ireland gone selfie mad?

Northern Ireland’s Labour Force Survey (LFS) churned out more record highs and lows of the positive variety in Q3 2019.  However, looking through all the statistical noise there are still signs that suggest the labour market cycle has turned. A surge in self-employment has been accompanied by a reduction in the number of ‘employees’ working. Meanwhile the total number of hours worked and average hours worked has eased back from its highs earlier in the year. Given the marked deterioration in business conditions in Q3 and Q4 it is expected that this will increasingly become evident within the labour market in the coming quarters. Q2 2019 is still likely to have represented the peak in the total number of employee jobs as measured in the Quarterly Employment Survey.


Lowest of the low. Northern Ireland’s ILO unemployment found a new record low of 2.5% for the period July – September 2019. Not only does that rate compare favourably with the UK (3.8%) and the Republic of Ireland (5.3%), it also is the lowest of all twelve UK regions. But with the LFS, the employment rate speaks louder (provides a better reflection of labour market strength) than the unemployment rate.  While NI’s employment rate (the proportion of working-age in work) hit a fresh record high of 72.3% in Q3, it is the second-lowest rate of all the UK regions.

Record high. The number of individuals working in some shape or form hit a fresh high of 878,000 for Q3. That’s up 0.5% (+4,000) on Q2’s previous peak and 4.3% higher than Q3 2018. Furthermore, this annual pace of employment growth represented the largest gain in almost eight years. The pick-up in employment conceals contrasting fortunes for employees and self-employed.

Selfie mad. Self-employment rose to a new record high of 139,000 in Q3, gaining 5.3% relative to Q2 and 13.9% higher over the year.  The surge in self-employment is even more staggering when looking at men.  Male self-employment jumped by 7.3% q/q and a whopping 22.6% y/y. By comparison, female self-employment fell by 5.4% y/y.

Go For It! So have we seen an outbreak of entrepreneurship amongst males?  Probably not. The scale of the rise is perhaps more indicative of forced rather than voluntary self-employment. That is, males are moving from more secure employee roles into self-employment.

Jobs falling. The number of people working may be at an all-time-high, but the total number of individuals working as employees is falling.  Having peaked at 734,000 in Q2, the number of employees declined by 1.2% q/q (-9,000) in Q3 to 725,000.  This is largely a male phenomenon with male employees decreasing by 2.5% q/q (-9,000) in Q3.

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