Advisory - Economics

Does a strong labour market deliver a good labour market?

Martha Sargent
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Does a strong labour market deliver a good labour market? That is a topic that is gaining much more attention, especially so since the Economy Minister cited ‘good jobs’ in his economic objectives.

The latest statistics on the labour market note that for the period between December and February 2024, unemployment stood at record lows (2.2%) and employment rates reached 71.7%, the highest level since the pandemic. For the first time since 2001, Northern Ireland did not have the highest level of economically inactive (26.7%) in the UK, with higher rates across Wales (28.1%) and the North-East (26.9%). 

The strength of the labour market creates a context in which we can challenge ourselves on whether the jobs we have are ‘good’. This has not always been the case. Since the pandemic and the Great Financial crash, a focus for Northern Ireland has been the retention/recovery of jobs through downturns. In total, Northern Ireland lost over 40,000 jobs following these economic shocks. Encouragingly, as the recovery has taken hold, Northern Ireland reached peak levels of employment with over 904,000 jobs in 2022. 

So what does this tell about the quality of jobs available? Creating a resilient economy, one that’s focused on jobs that suit the individual and promotes the overall economy, requires emphasis on good quality jobs. This concept of ‘good jobs’ has become core policy for the Department for Economy following the Minister’s Economic Vision, which states “the promotion of good jobs” as one of four key objectives; along with promoting regional balance, raising productivity and reducing carbon emissions. This idea of good jobs has also been promoted in the Resolution Foundation’s research on Creating a Good-Jobs Economy in the UK in which they found that the British economy falls short on inequality metrics and that regional patterns in productivity play out in job quality.

But what makes a ‘good job’? Is it simply one that pays well, or does it go much further than that? For now, Northern Ireland does not have a clearly defined position on what a ‘good’ job is. What is clear is that it is a mix of areas such as pay, job satisfaction, HR policies, inclusivity etc. and as such is debated among policymakers, academics, and economists. In fact the Department are currently debating such concepts as part of their measure for the ‘good jobs’ objective announced in the Minister’s Economic Vision.

The Resolution Foundation has provided some insight into what makes a ‘good job’ such as work that pays well enough to allow for a reasonable living standard, stability and security, and opportunities for career progression. Northern Ireland’s New Decade New Approach 2020 includes decent working conditions, security of tenure and a workers level of autonomy in their analysis, and more recently the Nevin Economic Research Institute labeled ‘good jobs’ as being secure with strong employee-management relations.

The body of research on ‘good jobs’ has highlighted that there is no clear path to tread in measuring or observing ‘good jobs’ for the Department. However some insight into the indicators that ‘could’ be used, can be gathered through NISRA’s Work Quality reports. Latest data for some elements of consideration shows that 84.5% of all employee jobs are paid the real living wage or above, 96.9% are in secure employment and 78.4% reported having job satisfaction. 

Thinking about ‘good jobs’ provides a more holistic approach to economic development. Improvements to wellbeing as a result of a ‘good job’ is expected to lead to wider economic benefits to society, as well as to the individual. Firms that place value on ‘good jobs’ should also experience higher levels of job satisfaction amongst workers, leading to an increase in productivity, a reduction in staff turnover and should attract more talent. A people-focused approach on ‘good jobs’ encourages security of employment, training and skills development to achieve the national skills gap challenge. As the old saying goes, ‘if you can measure it you can manage it’. Before that, we can add ‘if you can define it you can measure it’. Seeing the Department take steps toward defining and tracking ‘good jobs’ can only serve to strengthen the economy and add to Northern Ireland being viewed as a more attractive place to do business.