By Michael McHugh, Press Association
Almost half of businesses in Northern Ireland have not sought Brexit advice because of uncertainty over a deal, a survey showed.
Larger firms were most likely to have asked for the help of accountants, lawyers, private business advisers or the Government, according to the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce.
The economy is dominated by smaller firms with only a handful of employees but they were least likely to have sought help.
Some were not sure who to talk to, and others did not feel the looming separation was relevant to them because they only traded in the UK, research showed.
The decline by a quarter in the number of European workers since the Brexit vote has contributed to serious recruitment difficulties and a skills gap facing some Northern Ireland firms, the quarterly economic survey carried out by the Chamber and advisers BDO disclosed.
Chamber chief executive Ann McGregor said: “These findings reinforce what we are hearing from businesses regularly – the uncertainty over Brexit and the inability to address regional issues as a result of no Executive (at Stormont), are starting to bite.
“We have a vibrant and innovative business community that wants to invest and grow, but we are stuck in limbo while Brexit negotiations continue to dominate.”
The analysis of traders’ concerns said 47% of businesses had not sought Brexit advice, largely due to the political uncertainty over a final deal.
Around one in three have sought help, breaking down as 40% of medium or large firms, 27% of small and 21% of micro-businesses.
Ms McGregor said those that were hiring were finding it increasingly difficult to fill vacancies. Recruitment has been a long-standing problem in Northern Ireland and Brexit is only one factor.
She added: “There are some serious skills gaps opening up for firms and we urgently need to find a way to resolve this.
“Many firms are deeply invested in developing home-grown skills and talent within their company, however this alone is not enough to fill the skills gap, at all levels, that businesses face right now.”
The number of workers from Europe has declined by a quarter since the Brexit vote, the Chamber said.
Ms McGregor said the recruitment problem is set to worsen after the March exit.
“Government must work with businesses to develop an immigration policy that supports a growing economy.
“We should not be closing the door on any of the skills we need for our companies to succeed.”
The survey said there were still signs of growth in the local economy, with manufacturing performing better than services.
In services, the region trails the rest of the UK in domestic orders.
Half of Chamber members said exchange rate pressures had become more of a concern, with another swing expected once the shape of the post-Brexit future becomes clear.
Confidence in profitability is on a downward trend.
Brian Murphy, managing partner at BDO, said: “Our businesses are ambitious and want to invest.
“To do so, they need clarity around a range of matters including Brexit and how to address key regional issues in Northern Ireland.”