THE number of people in work in Scotland has finally returned to pre-pandemic levels, according to official figures. 

Early estimates from HMRC suggest there were 2.42 million payrolled employees north of the border last month, an increase of 22,000 or 0.9 per cent compared to February 2020.

The number of people in work in the UK as a whole has also returned to pre-Covid levels, and is currently 1.4% above where it was in the month before lockdown.

Other new statistics out today also showed improvements in employment and unemployment figures for Scotland.

The latest labour force survey estimated that from September and Novermber 2021 the unemployment rate was just 3.6%, up 0.8 percentage points on the previous quarter.

In addition, the unemployment rate was down 0.1 points on the last pre-pandemic quarter which ran from December 2019 to February 2020.

Scotland’s unemployment rate in the three months to November was also lower than the UK-wide level of 4.1% of people of those aged 16 and over out of a job.

A total of 100,000 Scots were unemployed in the September to November period, according to the Office for National Statistics, down 21,000 on the previous quarter.

Scotland’s estimated employment rate was 75.1 per cent in the same period, up 0.8 points over the quarter, but slightly below the UK rate of 75.5%.

Other figures show pay growth across the UK being outstripped by inflation for the first time in a year, adding to the cost of living squeeze and fuelling inflationary wage demands.

SNP employment minister Richard Lochhead said: “For September to November 2021, Scotland’s estimated employment rate rose over the quarter to 75.1% while the estimated unemployment rate fell to 3.6%.

“Separate HMRC early estimates show 2.42 million employees in Scotland in December 2021, 22,000 more than in February 2020, prior to the pandemic.”

He went on: “We are all too aware of the continuing impact and economic uncertainty that Covid is having and that is why we are doing all we can to limit the spread of the virus and mitigate the effects it has on our economy.

“The 2022/23 Scottish Budget invests an additional £68.3 million in employability and training to help businesses address skills shortages and create high quality, sustainable jobs.

“Spending in this area is targeted at all sectors and social groups, including people currently furthest from employment, so that everyone and every region can benefit from Scotland’s economic transformation.

“To accelerate the potential of digital technology £192 million is allocated to improve connectivity and boost the digital economy, including specific support for small and medium-sized businesses.”

Scottish Secretary Alister Jack said: “These figures show the UK Government's Plan for Jobs is working for Scotland, with payrolled employees increasing at a greater monthly percentage than anywhere else in the UK, and remaining above pre-pandemic levels. 

“Continuing to tackle the pandemic, driving our recovery and getting even more people back into work continue to be our top priorities. 

“Our job support schemes including Kickstart and targeted support through our jobcentre network are helping people up and down the country find jobs and progress in work.

“Our record £41bn a year funding for the Scottish Government will also support business growth and job creation as we level up across the whole UK.”

Dr Stuart McIntyre, Head of Research at the University of Strathclyde’s Fraser of Allander Institute, said the data suggested the economic recovery was continuing.

“But, as always, it’s important not to get too carried away in response to one set of labour market data,” he added.

“While the headline numbers put us broadly back where we were pre-pandemic, this is to misread where the labour market and wider economy currently are.

“We’ve still got many more people claiming unemployment related benefits in Scotland than we had before the pandemic. Indeed there are still more people claiming unemployment related benefits now than there were at any point during the financial crisis.

“And there is still some way to go before we get back to the number of hours worked in the economy that we had before the pandemic. Continuing uncertainty about the future path of the virus remains the key factor in the economic outlook.” 

Dr McIntrye continued: “An interesting development in recent months has been the growth in the employment rate for women. Today’s data set a new record employment rate for working age (16-64) women of 73.1%.

“It is too early to tell whether this reflects the changing nature of work available, including flexible and agile working, as well as other factors, and how much it reflects increasing pressure on household budgets given rising inflation.”