MEA district’s skills shortage revealed

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Mid and East Antrim is suffering from a skills gap after it emerged that 41 per cent of the district’s residents have no or low qualifications.

The figures, contained in a DOE report on employment and economic development, were presented to a meeting of Mid and East Antrim Council’s Planning Committee on February 10.

The report, designed to help Councillors decide how to accommodate future economic growth across the district and formulate a community plan, showed that overall in 2011 only 22 per cent of MEA residents over 16 years of age had a degree or higher qualification. In Carrickfergus, 23 per cent of people had a degree or higher qualification, followed by 22 per cent in Ballymena and 21 per cent in Larne.

Economic activity in the MEA area increased between 2001 and 2011, with unemployment levels remaining below the national average. In Ballymena, 69 per cent of the population were economically active in 2011, compared with 68 per cent in Larne and Carrickfergus. However, 31 per cent of Ballymena residents were economically inactive, four per cent of whom were unemployed. In both Larne and Carrickfergus, 32 per cent of residents were economically inactive, four per cent of whom were unemployed.

The majority of jobs in MEA are in the services sector, and 78 per cent of businesses are “micro businesses” employing five people or less. In Ballymena, out of a total of 71 hectares of industrial zoned land, approximately 38 hectares remain undeveloped. This compares with 44 undeveloped hectares of zoned industrial land out of a total 81 zoned hectares in Larne and 87 undeveloped zoned hectares out of a total 152 in Carrickfergus. In total, 169 hectares of zoned industrial land remain undevelopped across MEA district.

The report warns that departmental budget cuts could result in “significant job losses” in the MEA area which has “a healthy share of public sector jobs.” Combined with welfare reform and rising pension ages, it states there could be an “adverse economic impact” on the district.

DOE Planning Manager Michael Francey told councillors that rural economic development would also be taken into consideration.

UUP Cllr Stephen Nicholl commented: “If we don’t have an educated work force those that are coming in will have to look elsewhere.”

TUV Cllr Timothy Gaston added that attracting more high-paid jobs to the area could encourage young people to stay in their communities.