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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Workers in Northern Ireland more likely to be stuck in low paid work than rest of UK

Think-tank calls for investment in skills to tackle economic challenges of inactivity, progression, productivity and automation

If you’re in a low paid job in Northern Ireland, you’re more likely than any other part of the UK to stay in low paid work for the rest of your career.

That is a finding of a new report, published today by leading think-tank IPPR, which sets out that Northern Ireland has a career progression rate of just 2.5%, compared to an average of 6% across the UK.

In particular, those with low qualification levels in Northern Ireland are less than half as likely to progress to a higher skilled job as people with equivalent skill levels in the UK as a whole.

The report also highlights other challenges to Northern Ireland’s economy, in addition to Brexit, which include:

  • Inactivity rates in Northern Ireland are the worst in the UK, with a spike in inactivity from the mid-40s onwards compared to the rest of the UK.
  • Pay rates in Northern Ireland remain the lowest in the UK despite improving over the last decade.
  • Productivity rates in Northern Ireland are poorest in the UK - poor productivity underpins poor pay and progression rates and poor economic growth.
  • 48% of jobs in Northern Ireland are at high potential for change from automation- that’s the highest in the UK.

The think-tank has called for a focus on, and investment in skills, to be central to tackling these challenges in order to deliver prosperity for Northern Ireland.

Russell Gunson, a Director at IPPR, said:

“Low paid workers in Northern Ireland are more likely to stay in low paid work for the rest of their careers than any other part of the UK. While this isn’t the fault of the skills system alone, boosting career progression rates should be a key priority.

"To tackle Northern Ireland’s current economic problems, and the future challenges of automation and Brexit, Northern Ireland needs to prioritise investment in skills and renew its focus on lifelong learning in particular. Doing so could bring big rewards in boosting productivity, pay and economic growth.

“By bringing business, learners and the skills system together, Northern Ireland can begin to tackle the economic problems of the present, and prepare for the challenges coming down the line through automation and Brexit. Failing to do so would run the risk of entrenching existing inequalities and creating new ones.”



Rosie Corrigan, Media and Campaigns Manager for IPPR Scotland, 07585772633,

Russell Gunson, Director of IPPR Scotland, 07766 904 332,


Russell Gunson (based in Edinburgh) is available for interviews.

The Skills System in Northern Ireland: Challenges and Opportunities is available at:

Career progression refers to the percentage of workers moving from low-skilled work to higher-skilled work each quarter.

The report has been undertaken with support from the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL). FETL is a unique charity and independent think tank whose purpose is to enable the development of the leadership of thinking in further education and skills across the UK. Their vision is of a further education and skills sector that is valued and respected for innovating constantly to meet the needs of learners, communities and employers, preparing for the long term as well as delivering in the short term, sharing fresh ideas generously and informing practice with knowledge. For more information, visit

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) Scotland is IPPR’s dedicated think-tank for Scotland. We are cross-party, progressive, and neutral on the question of Scotland’s independence. IPPR Scotland is dedicated to supporting and improving public policy in Scotland, working tirelessly to achieve a progressive Scotland. For more information, visit:

Today’s report is the first of three which will be published as part of IPPR Scotland’s work which looks at what a 21st century skills system should look like for Northern Ireland and Scotland.

The key insights from the report are:

Delivering for Northern Ireland

1. Solving low pay and low progression rates should be a key measure of success for the skills system.

2. The skills system in Northern Ireland needs to focus on mid-career learning.

3. Northern Ireland needs to move on from targeting only youth unemployment to improving life chances for young people.

4. Schools and colleges should work to focus on those most at risk of leaving school with no qualifications.

Working together

5. There have been some positive reforms to the skills system in recent years that represent a foundation to be built on.

6. An outcomes-focused approach could help to bring greater coherence across the skills system.

7. A two-pronged approach is needed to boost skills demand and supply.

8. Learner and employer engagement within the skills system needs to be improved to meet the challenges facing the skills system and benefit from the opportunities.

9. The opportunity for greater business engagement through the introduction of the apprenticeship levy should not be missed.

10. Employers, particularly small and medium employers, could play a greater role in training Northern Ireland’s workforce.

Preparing Northern Ireland for the future

11. Technological change and automation are likely to mean that employees face multiple jobs, multiple employers and multiple careers.

12. Funding for the skills system is unlikely to improve over the short or medium term.

13. Automation, Brexit and the changing nature of globalisation will mean huge changes for Northern Ireland.

14. Northern Ireland needs to be more strategic about migration within existing powers.

15. Political instability is hindering the skills system’s ability to adapt and anticipate change, but there is a role for the leadership of employers, learners, third sector and trade unions through social partnership to drive a new skills agenda.