Building a mobile workforce

In this month's issue of Business First, DRG's Donna Parker (Operations Director) explains how Ballymena can benefit from the North West economy and rely less on single large employers in Belfast and Antrim.

May 6, 2016

Recent employment news from Ballymena has been far from ideal – between several companies, close to 2000 jobs will be leaving the Co. Antrim town in the next two years starting this month.

With these announcements, much has been said about Stormont’s role in encouraging continued investment in Ballymena. February’s jobs rally even saw Ballymena’s prodigal son, Liam Neeson, make an appeal to political leaders to “match the ambition of the people” and bring back manufacturing to Ballymena.

State of Manufacturing

While these stories have been making the headlines, employment in manufacturing over the last year had actually been increasing. From December 2014 to December 2015 jobs in manufacturing increased by 2.2% according to the most recent Labour Market Report released by the Northern Ireland Statistics & Research Agency (NISRA). So what is actually the state of Northern Ireland’s manufacturing industry?

The answer may lie in a recent report released by Manufacturing NI and Oxford Economics. This predicted that while the manufacturing industry itself will grow 17% by 2025 (an increase of £795m), we should expect employment in manufacturing to fall by 7%, with the loss of 6300 jobs over the next 10 years across Northern Ireland.

This means Stormont could very well invest in manufacturing, but with companies increasing their use of technology and investing in more efficient processes, this does not mean the jobs we have lost will come back.

Then what are workers in Ballymena to do?

Thinking outside Ballymena

Using data from the 2011 Census, the Office of National Statistics Data Visualisation Centre can show commuting patterns across Northern Ireland, revealing that 30% of Ballymena workers are employed outside of the Mid and East Antrim Borough Council area. To no one’s surprise, a great number commute to the greater Belfast area, with 3205 people (or 35% of all Ballymena commuters) travelling daily to Belfast and Newtownabbey.

Considering the recent report by Manufacturing NI and Oxford Economics, this is further cause for concern when it comes to Ballymena workers. The largest falls in manufacturing employment are expected to happen in Belfast, with job numbers expected to drop by 1200 by 2025. This means Ballymena workers may need to be prepared to travel further afield for work.

For instance, in comparison to Ballymena the North West has recently seen some good news in manufacturing and engineering; whilst manufacturing businesses in the area tend to be small to medium sized, their numbers collectively are considerable. The Oxford Economics and Manufacturing NI report also predicts the Derry & Strabane local government area will account for 8% of the total GVA growth in manufacturing up to 2025. This is compared to Belfast’s small 3% contribution, the lowest of all local government areas. 

The announcement of the A6 dual carriageway and Dungiven bypass also shows the renewed enthusiasm for investment in the North West, and it also represents a greater opportunity for workers in locations such as Ballymena. According to the 2011 Census less than 1% of Ballymena workers travel to the North West for work. Looking at Derry/Londonderry specifically only 69 individuals from Ballymena are listed as working in Northern Ireland’s second largest city.

Despite a distance of only 40 miles as the crow flies between Ballymena and Derry, the current infrastructure in place severely limits connectivity. Currently, Ballymena workers would find it difficult to benefit from any greater economic development in the North West, but investments such as the A6 dual carriageway will help break down these barriers.

Benefiting from growth in the North West

As it stands, Diamond Recruitment’s Ballymena office has been working hard alongside some of our clients in the North West to help attract talent from across the province, and we are starting to see a shift in attitudes. With greater infrastructure in place, Northern Ireland could see a more mobile workforce. This would have the added benefit of individual towns relying less on high volume employers – if specific towns are less impacted by changes in a specific sector, we can ensure we maintain sustainable towns and cities across the region.

We are also working closely with workers who have found themselves at risk of redundancy due to the recent job losses in Ballymena. By helping workers identify transferable skills and identifying opportunities across the North West, we have helped people step into promising careers in new sectors. The job losses in Ballymena are difficult to take, but our consultants at the Diamond Recruitment Ballymena branch have been hard at work helping workers identifying their next steps.

The solutions above may not represent the answers Ballymena workers want today – it will require hard work, a realignment of priorities, and a breakdown of long-held assumptions of where prosperity lies – but by starting this work now we can ensure people across Northern Ireland benefit from the burgeoning North West economy.