Northern Ireland’s labour market statistics have provided a plentiful source of positivity in recent years. Unemployment has hit lows that no economist forecasted and employment has never been higher. The latest batch of data in the Labour Force Survey (June – August 2019) reveals some more record highs (e.g. employment amongst males). However, there are a variety of indicators that suggest that the labour market is on the turn. These signs of a weakening labour market must be placed in the appropriate context; namely, Northern Ireland’s labour market has never been stronger. Indeed, Northern Ireland’s unemployment rate remains at the ridiculously low level of 2.9%, just a shade above last month’s record low of 2.8%.
Economists are stereotyped as being, let’s say, not the most rock and roll people. But of late, those of us working on Northern Ireland have had reason to focus strongly on drugs, cigarettes and heavy metals. That’s because these are some of the subsectors of the economy and the manufacturing sector that have seen the biggest highs or are the most troubled.
There’s no shortage of information on the housing market, telling us how prices and sales activity for instance are changing on an annual, quarterly or even monthly basis. These surveys are important and give us a flavour of how the market, which is a key part of the economy, is performing. But there is a danger that we get too fixated on these numbers and miss a more important trend.