While economic momentum and employment growth will gradually build throughout the UK over the next three years, Scotland’s labour market is expected to continue to see challenges and lag other regions, according to the latest EY Regional Economic Forecast.

The average employment growth rate in Scotland between 2024 and 2027 is expected to be 0.8%, lagging all other regions across the UK, with Northern Ireland and Wales sitting at a close second at 0.9%. All three are predicted to be behind the UK national average of 1.1%.

According to the report, Scotland’s employment prospects are dampened by weak demographic growth, a high rate of economic inactivity (19.6% for 2023), and tighter fiscal policy. The Annual Population Survey (October 2022 to September 2023), published in the latest Scotland EY ITEM Club Forecast, shows that long-term sickness appears to be a considerable reason for economic inactivity in Scotland, accounting for almost 32% of inactivity, compared to 27% in the UK. Early retirement also appears more significant at 14.0%, compared to 12.7% for the UK. Relatively high inactivity in Scotland is likely to be constraining employment growth and company recruitment activity.

Over the longer-term, demographic trends play a key role in determining the scale of future jobs growth and, in turn, the country’s economic prosperity. According to the latest Scotland EY ITEM Club Forecast, the population growth in Scotland is expected to be relatively weak, with migration only just offsetting the decline from natural change (births minus deaths). Tighter UK policy on immigration is also expected to impact the population outlook for Scotland, which is somewhat weaker than the UK average - largely as a result of lower net migration.

The latest Scottish income tax increases for 2024-25 have the potential to exacerbate some of the trends in the Scottish labour market further. It has been estimated that a Scottish taxpayer earning £125,000 will pay £5,221 more in tax in Scotland in 2024–25 than they would if working elsewhere in the UK. This may change after the UK Government’s Budget in March, but currently amounts to a fiscal tightening for an estimated 154,000 higher earners in Scotland.

Furthermore, the forecast expects Scotland to have the lowest Total Personal Disposable Income growth rate across 2024 to 2027, sitting at an average rate of 1.3%, behind all other regions and the national average of 1.6%. Consumer spending is predicted to be lowest in Scotland at an average rate of 1.7% for the next three years, against the UK average of 2%.

Scotland also ranks last place against all other regions and the UK average on GVA growth. From 2024 to 2027, EY’s forecast predicts Scotland’s average GVA growth rate to be 1.5%, with the UK average GVA growth rate sitting at 1.9% over the same period.

A spotlight on Scotland’s sectors and cities

Information and Communication (8.8%), Energy (8.51%) and Construction (6.84%) services are forecasted to be amongst Scotland’s fastest growing sectors in terms of GVA growth from 2024 to 2027.

Glasgow is predicted to be the fastest growing city in Scotland over the next three years (2024 – 2027) with an average GVA growth rate of 1.9%, matching the UK average GVA growth rate. Glasgow is experiencing an expansion in its professional services sector, coupled with an increase in productivity (in terms of GVA per worker) which is driving growth. Edinburgh ranks a close second at 1.8%. Two of the slowest growing cities are predicted to be Dundee at 1.4% and Aberdeen at 0.8% - the latter ranking lowest in the UK. This is likely explained by challenges in the Oil & Gas sector, upon which Aberdeen’s economy is heavily reliant, including the long-term decline in North Sea Oil production. Policy has also played a part as the introduction of the windfall tax continues to act as a barrier to investment in the sector.

Ally Scott, EY Scotland Managing Partner, said: “Although the economic outlook is expected to gradually improve over the next three years, Scotland lags the rest of the UK on many macroeconomic factors – namely, employment growth and personal disposable income growth, where it ranks lowest out of the whole of the UK.

“We have already noted a softening in investor and business sentiment, and now individuals living in Scotland are also likely to feel the effects of the constricted labour market and fiscal tightening more acutely. Barriers to growth, such as the widening income tax cross-border divide, may result in job seekers choosing to settle in other more lucrative locations across the UK. This is a concern for our high growth sectors looking to attract the talent that is required to reach their economic – and tax-take – potential.”

Looking ahead: the labour market remains key

The labour market remains the focus for the performance and economic outlook for Scotland - and the UK as a whole - to set the foundation for a stronger recovery in 2025 and beyond.

The forecast says that understanding regional differences in labour markets, and steering policy makers at both local and national level to address these differences, will be vital to supporting Scotland’s future economic growth. This could include incentivising those who have left the labour market back into employment to address some of the structural challenges as well as ensuring that re-skilling is focused towards sectors where demand for labour will be the greatest, including Information and Communication.

Sue Dawe, EY Scotland Managing Partner for Financial Services, said: “To sustain economic growth over the next three years, it will be crucial for Scotland to have a talented and robust workforce in place – one that is ready to up-skill, re-skill and adapt.

“For the Scottish Financial Services sector, retaining and attracting new talent will play a large part in the success of the sector’s growth strategy. People need to be incentivised to stay in Scotland, while attracting new external candidates, into what should be a successful and rewarding place to work. But Scotland can only achieve its full potential with the right policies and incentives in place. This is a forecast rather than a score card and only with the correct mix of interventions and policies can Scotland hopefully avoid the worst of what’s predicted.”

Nationwide disparity in sector mix and economic inactivity set to persist

The UK overall is expected to see annual average GVA growth of 1.9% between 2024 and 2027 as lower inflation, a strong labour market and the prospect of interest rate reductions lay the foundations for a return to more normal historical levels of growth. London and the South East are forecast to achieve annual GVA growth of 2.1% and 2% respectively, while the South West is expected to see 1.9% growth. Every other region is forecast to fail to match the UK average, with the slowest rates of GVA growth forecast for the North East (1.6%), Wales (1.6%) and Scotland (1.5%).

This can partly be attributed to the lower concentration of high value sectors in some parts of the UK. For example, professional services and technology industries are expected to be among the fastest growing sectors for GVA between 2024 and 2027, with average annual growth rates of 2.1% and 1.9% respectively. However, by 2027 the two sectors combined will comprise just 9.9% of all employment opportunities in the North East, 10% in Yorkshire and the Humberside, 8.2% in Wales and 8.9% in Northern Ireland. In comparison, by the same year they will comprise 14% of employment opportunities across the UK, but 16% of employment opportunities in the South East and 23.1% in London.

There are also significant variations in labour market participation across different parts of the UK and there appears to be a correlation between lower growth and higher levels of economic inactivity. Northern Ireland, has the highest level of inactivity, at 25.7%, almost three percentage points higher than in any other region. The North West (22.9%), Wales (22%) and the North East (20.7%), also have relatively high levels of inactivity, compared to the UK average (18.3%). In contrast, the lowest rates of inactivity can be found in those regions expected to match or exceed the average UK economic growth rate over the next three years – the South West (14.7%), London (14.9%) and the South East (15.9%).

Overall the UK remains the only major Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) country where the labour market participation rate has not yet returned to the level it was at before the pandemic. In 2023 the economic inactivity rate across the UK was 18.3%, a rise from 17.5% in 2019.

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