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File image of a woman working from home in east Belfast. Alamy Stock Photo
esri report

Lower educational qualifications 'key driver' of weaker employment rates in NI compared to Ireland

The qualifications of the working-age population are described as ‘considerably lower’ in Northern Ireland than in Ireland.

A NEW REPORT has found that “considerably lower” rates of educational qualifications in Northern Ireland are a “key driver” of the region’s lower employment rates when compared to the Republic of Ireland. 

The new study, titled ‘Gender and labour market inclusion on the island of Ireland’, is part of a research programme between the Shared Island Unit and the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).

The programme aims to provide “rigorous analysis to inform inclusive civic and political discussion on a shared future on the island of Ireland”.

The new research draws upon data from 2022 and assesses barriers to employment and differences in pay, working from home rates, and hours of work between women and men in the two jurisdictions.

It noted that the education attainment rates are “considerably lower” in Northern Ireland than in Ireland, and that this accounts for much of the differences across the jurisdictions. 

The ESRI report also found that women’s labour market participation and hours of work are more closely related to educational attainment levels than for men.

In Ireland, 44% of women have a third-level degree or higher, compared to 29% of women in Northern Ireland. 

Women in both regions have higher educational qualifications than men and the gender gap is similar.

In Ireland, 39% of men have a third-level degree or higher, compared to 24% of men in Northern Ireland. 

The research also found that there is a larger cohort of young people in Northern Ireland who leave secondary school early, and previous research has shown that the return to education in Ireland “substantially exceeds” that in Northern Ireland across all levels.

Employment and pay

The ESRI report said these differences in educational attainment account for much of the variation in employment levels. 

In 2022, the female labour force participation rate stood at 76% in Ireland and 72% in Northern Ireland.

Among males, labour force participation rates were 88% in Ireland and 81% in Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile, women were found to be at a higher risk of being low-paid across both jurisdictions and it was found that higher education offers strong protection from low pay in both regions.

Working part-time is an additional risk-factor for low hourly pay, and part-time work is more common for female workers than for male workers. 

For women, the likelihood of working part-time increases with the number of children, with the highest rates of part-time work is found among lone mothers with larger families.

In 2022, 25% of females and 18% of males were defined as being low-paid in Ireland.

In Northern Ireland, this stood at 21% for females and 14% for males.

Low-paid employees are defined as those earning less than two-thirds of the median hourly pay.

However, the ESRI report noted that “comparisons across the two jurisdictions in pay should be treated with some caution, due to some data limitations”.

Working from home is also more prevalent among males than for females. 

In Ireland, 25% of women and men mainly work from home, while in Northern Ireland this figure is 14% for women and 19% for men. 

Women were found to be less likely to work from home due to their over-representation in jobs in health, education, front-line public administration and part-time jobs.

‘Mutual policy learning’

The report’s authors said the findings highlight how crucial education is for enhancing job prospects and noted the need to reduce early school-leaving levels in Northern Ireland.

It also called for access to lifelong learning initiatives, especially for older women. 

The report also noted the gendered nature of care responsibilities and how this creates challenges for women’s access to high-quality employment across both jurisdictions, and added that access to affordable early childhood care and education remains a key issue.

Integration Minister Roderic O’Gorman said the report “provides a timely examination of the factors that affect labour market participation and working conditions for women and men in Ireland and Northern Ireland”.

O’Gorman added: “When it comes to participation in the labour market, it’s been clear for a long time that women face far greater obstacles than men.

“The Government will continue to work to deepen gender equality.

“We want to take every opportunity there is to do that in a joined-up and collaborative way across the island, working with the Northern Ireland Executive.”

Meanwhile, one of the report’s author’s Garance Hingre noted that “women experience common disadvantages in the labour market across the island of Ireland”. 

Hingre added that “comparing neighbouring systems offers an opportunity for mutual policy learning”.

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