A region by region look at working in HR in the UK. This month we investigate Northern Ireland. Edited by Ross Wigham, e-mail: [email protected]
Economic recovery takes root despite troubled past
Northern Ireland has traditionally been the UK’s smallest regional economy with a population of just 1.7 million. It has also been one of the least prosperous, with employment levels lagging behind the rest of the UK, and a gross value added (GVA) per head 20 per cent lower than the national average. GVA measures individual and industry contributions to the economy.
The region has also suffered from persistent political turmoil which has had an impact on the economy.
The Northern Ireland Assembly was established as part of the Belfast Agreement and after elections, it took responsibility for devolved rule with full legislative and executive authority. However, the assembly was suspended on 14 October 2002, amid great controversy, and the province is currently centrally run from London.
According to the HSBC Regional Focus Report, the economic situation in the province reflects a gradual decline of manufacturing industries and a growth in the service sector.
Despite this, the economy still managed to grow by 2.3 per cent in 2003, slightly better than the UK as a whole. The report predicts this will continue in 2004, with exports lifting the growth to 3 per cent.
The region is also tackling its workforce problems, and the current unemployment rate of 5.2 per cent is actually lower than the EU average. Despite a steady loss of manufacturing jobs, the latest employee jobs figure of 672,150 is the highest on record.
Figures from the Northern Ireland Executive confirm the decline of manufacturing jobs but show they are being absorbed by growth in the service sector. In the past five years, around 16,290 manufacturing jobs have been lost with the number of service sector roles growing by 65,879.
Manpower’s Economic Outlook Survey also provides signs for optimism by rating Northern Ireland with a net figure of +20, which is four points above the national average.
Lynne Stevenson, chair of the Northern Ireland branch of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development believes the region offers good business opportunities.
“The signs of economic regeneration can clearly be seen in Belfast City Centre, with cranes and scaffolding welcome symbols of prosperity. Investors have recognised Northern Ireland’s potential for a long time, but the prospect of peace has brought a sharp increase in the amount of inward investment.”
However, a survey by the GMB trade union found that employees in the region were some of the worst paid, with the province containing seven out of 10 of the lowest paid areas in the UK.
County Down was the worst paid area with an average wage of just £16,281 – £8,443 below the national average of the UK as a whole.
A separate survey by website Payfinder.com suggests that Northern Ireland has a narrower gender pay gap than the rest of the UK – 17 per cent compared with an overall UK average of 24 per cent.
Living in the region
Schools in Northern Ireland have a pupil-to-teacher ratio of 16.5:1 and a participation rate of 78.1 per cent among 16-year-olds. Figures from the Department for Employment and Learning show that 29 per cent of youngsters leave school with three or more A-levels while 20.7 per cent gain one to four GCSE grades at A-C level.
Northern Ireland is served by three major airports: Belfast International Airport, Belfast City Airport and the City of Derry Airport. It also has several ferry ports, and internally the roads are good and relatively uncrowded. There is an integrated public transport system operated by Translink, and cycling is also a popular option.
Putting aside the obvious troubles and religious divides, the country has outstanding countryside and a thriving cultural scene centred on Belfast. The Northern Ireland Tourist Board has been on a major publicity drive and initial figures indicate that tourism rose by 11 per cent in 2003, representing around 1.9 million visits.
Figures provided by the University of Ulster and the Bank of Ireland show that the average price of a home in the province is now £105,863. The average cost of a detached house is £158,942, while a semi-detached property will cost £96,704. Terraced houses and flats are cheaper, with an average price of £78,043 and £94,995 respectively.
HR contacts and local information
Foyle health and Social Services Trust
Based: North-west Northern Ireland
Elaine Way, chief executive of the Foyle Health and Social Services Trust, has worked in the province for her entire career, and would recommend it to others in HR.
In an area of outstanding natural beauty, she says, her personal and professional ambitions have been more than fulfilled.
“There is a great sense of community here, and the majority of staff are local and passionately committed to giving the best service. One of Foyle’s greatest strengths is the fact that so many of our staff work here throughout their careers and know patients and clients very well,” she says.
Way believes Northern Ireland has led the way in equality legislation because of the unique circumstances in the province.
“We have developed some really good practice in this area which should be of benefit to our colleagues now that religious discrimination legislation applies elsewhere,” she explains.
“The big HR challenges in Northern Ireland are exactly the same as those in the rest of the UK. We are trying to modernise and improve services and address clinical and social care governance.
“Throughout 30 years of ‘the troubles’, staff have worked hard to ensure that services are provided to all on the basis of need. Recent political uncertainties with regard to the devolved government have led to some frustration about the organisational changes that are needed, but overall this is a very good place to work.”
move here for…
A survey suggests the province has the smallest gender pay gap of any region
Figures suggest the sector will grow by 4 per cent to £291m
You could benefit from a growing economy
But beware of…
Although broadly similar, there are some crucial differences
Although things are improving the region has low levels of pay
As in many areas, this sector is suffering