How Data Could Tell Us What Skills We’ll Need for the Jobs of the Future

Businesswoman and businessman walking go to front of bright big shining door in the wall blue of the hole at light falls.

This article forms part of our Data for Policy series. As part of IPPO and UCL’s Department of Information Studies’ Building Local Data Capabilities project, five Data for Policy Fellows are currently embedded in partner local government bodies across the United Kingdom and will write about their experiences and insights on the challenges of using data in policymaking.

Thomas Murat

Deprivation and economic inactivity rates in Belfast are some of the highest in Northern Ireland and the UK.

Despite multiple interventions, the North and West of Belfast remain ‘persistently’ deprived, with long-term data showing consistently high levels of economic inactivity. 

The pandemic further exacerbated these challenges, with over 50% of the economically inactive population citing ‘long-term sickness’ (Lloyd, 2021). There are many significant barriers to re-entering the labour market, such as a lack of suitable childcare provision and access to transport, which require innovative solutions to allow access to further qualifications and jobs (Pivotal, 2024).

Belfast City Council has put forward a proposal to help tackle long-term unemployment through the introduction of a Labour Market Observatory (LMO). A key objective of an LMO is to analyse and identify labour market trends to provide intelligence-led decision-making. 

The purpose of a Belfast LMO is to sit alongside existing schemes, particularly the Labour Market Partnership (LMP), and identify skill gaps and future employment opportunities for Belfast residents. This will help stakeholders within the LMP develop targeted schemes that are evidence-based and help lead to cohesive action to develop Belfast’s economy and reduce deprivation.

Economic Inactivity in Belfast

While Northern Ireland has consistently had some of the lowest unemployment rates in the UK, pockets of deprivation – particularly in North and West Belfast – show entrenched, disproportionately high levels of worklessness and low levels of educational attainment. 

For example, 32.1% of the working-age population in Belfast is currently economically inactive, with a recent increase due to long-term sickness, thought to be due to the impact of long-term COVID-19, with 55% of the economically inactive population citing long-term sickness (UUEPC, 2024).

As part of a vision to transform Belfast, Belfast City Council has developed the Belfast Agenda, a plan to develop Belfast into a ‘compassionate city’ by 2035, with a focus on four key themes: Our Planet, Our Place, Our People and Communities and Our Economy. 

One of the key goals is to reduce inequality levels and provide skilled training and jobs to areas of high unemployment and NEET (Not in Education or Training) (Belfast City Council, 2023b). The plan involves a high level of community engagement, both in developing and implementing the objectives. 

To support these goals, Belfast City Council has developed the Labour Market Partnership, working with a variety of stakeholders to develop employment opportunities (Belfast City Council, 2023b). Its goal is to create flexibility between meeting local and community needs and employer needs, reduce skills gaps, provide better intelligence on employer’s skill needs, and ensure potential employees can meet these requirements. One current area of focus for the partnership is setting up the city’s new Labour Market Observatory.

What is a Labour Market Observatory (LMO)?

A Labour Market Observatory is a digital platform that provides an evidence-based analysis of labour market trends and skills data. It can provide analysis of labour market data and stimulate debate using a range of products from data tools, research, information databases, policy advice, and evidence on ‘what works’ when encouraging a well-functioning and inclusive labour market.

This is not a new concept. Until 2020, the UK was part of the European Economic and Social Committees (EESC) LMO. There are thought to be over 500 LMOs across Europe, taking a variety of forms from local and regional LMOs, national LMOs, and sector LMOs.

These include CRISP in Italy which uses big data techniques to analyse trends in the Labour Market, as well as an EU-backed Labour Market Observatory for the Western Balkans that analyses data and provides a public policy tracker to determine the impacts of economic policies (CRISP, 2024; ESAP, 2024)

The function of LMOs varies and greatly depends on the goals of the department running the LMO. Some are focused on data collection and presentation, while some go further and offer points of action and policy advice. In France, OREF and OPMQC are frequently asked to make policy recommendations and have shifted to a hybrid role of observation and operation (ETF, 2016).

What does an LMO for Belfast need to deliver?

While there are various schemes to promote employment opportunities, there remains an intelligence gap for current labour market trends and skill requirements. A Belfast LMO aims to fill this gap by providing a central data gathering, processing, and analysis facility that enables data-driven decisions. 

It is intended to inform the design of interventions, including training programmes to help upskill and reduce barriers to employment. It should also give an insight into the future of the labour market, to help local government ensure Belfast’s workforce is being trained in the relevant skills to meet employment demands.

A success criterion of the LMO is the use of data to support the return to work and reduction of economic inactivity – particularly important as there is often a lack of open-source granular data that is regularly updated. 

The observatory will provide a critical tool for analysing data and providing solutions to help those in deprived neighbourhoods. 

The advantage of an LMO is that it can absorb a wide range of varied intelligence from local sources, such as Jobs and Benefits Offices (JBOs), local community groups, and residents themselves. This is intended to help analysts have a ‘real world’ perspective and get an ‘on the ground’ view of the data. 

By collating data from local government departments such as JBOs, health and social care, community groups, and education establishments, an independent group can help provide a clearer picture of the current and future labour market landscape.

The project can be led by an external academic organisation rather than the local authority, potentially resolving some data access issues that authorities face, such as political gridlock, smaller budgets, and a lack of resource to analyse excess data.

An LMO is not designed to replace current schemes. Instead, it acts as an independent information source to provide analytics to feed into decision-making, particularly for future Labour Market Partnerships.

By providing an independent body, local authorities are then freed up to focus on creating and implementing solutions to improve the lives of their local population. Finally, the integration of the LMO with stakeholders, the overarching Belfast Agenda, and subsequent programmes need to be considered.

The integration and analysis of data from multiple sources is challenging due to the differing methods of collecting and storing data, data access, and data privacy and granularity. Issues such as governance and integration with a national LMO have yet to be resolved and a Belfast LMO risks becoming underused or redundant if it does not differentiate itself from other schemes. This fellowship aims to identify the amount and granularity of data required for an LMO to succeed and how to overcome the barriers to obtaining and using the data.


  • Belfast City Council (2020) Local Development Plan 2020-2035 – Pop008. rep. Available at: 
  • Belfast City Council (2023a) Belfast Labour Market Partnership Strategic Overview, Belfast City Council. Available at: (Accessed: 01 July 2024). 
  • Belfast City Council (2023b) Belfast Agenda: Draft Strategic Plan 2023-2027. rep. 
  • CRISP (2024) Interuniversity Research Centre for Public Services, CRISP. Available at: (Accessed: 01 July 2024). 
  • ESAP (2024) Observatory on employment in the Western Balkans, ESAP Observatory | Home page. Available at: (Accessed: 01 July 2024). 
  • ETF (2016) Labour market and training observatories. Available at: (Accessed: 01 July 2024). 
  • Lloyd, C.D. (2021) ‘Neighbourhood change, deprivation, and unemployment in Belfast’, The Geographical Journal, 188(2), pp. 190–208. doi:10.1111/geoj.12424. 
  • Pivotal (2024) Economic inactivity in Northern Ireland. rep. Available at: UUEPC (2024) Economic inactivity Who, what, where, why? rep. Available at:,-what,-where,-why/Economic-Inactivity-FINAL.pdf.

Tom Murat is a Data for Policy Fellow embedded at Belfast City Council working on setting up the city’s Labour Market Observatory. He is a first-year PhD student at UCL’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, focusing on modelling transport systems using agent-based models to improve equitable outcomes. Tom’s background is in astrophysics and educational inequalities, and he has worked on multiple projects in Glasgow and London to improve outcomes for young people.