The number of Scots out of work has jumped by 3,000, reversing a period of steady falls in unemployment over the past year.
Across the UK, unemployment fell by 77,000 and stands at 2.24 million, according to figures published yesterday.
There are now 179,000 Scots out of work, the official figures for the period December 2013 to February showed.
The Scottish unemployment rate is 6.5 per cent, which is below the average of 6.9 per cent for the whole of the UK.
The number of people who now have a job has reached a record high in Scotland, with employment increasing by 16,000. It stands at 2.57m, the highest since records began.
Yesterday, First Minister Alex Salmond described the employment figures as “historic”. “The Scottish Government’s policy of investing in infrastructure to boost the economy is making significant progress with employment levels at a record high,” Mr Salmond said.
“To put it in perspective, there are 285,000 more people in employment today than there were when the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999.”
He added: “Scotland is outperforming the UK across employment, unemployment and inactivity rates which goes to show, even with the limited powers over the economy at our disposal, we are improving our country’s economic health.”
The rise in unemployment comes after a year of steady decline, although last November’s figures saw a slight increase of 1,000.
Youth unemployment is continuing to stagnate and fell by just 0.1 per cent in the year to December.
Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael said: “It is encouraging to see 16,000 more Scots move into work and the number claiming jobseekers’ allowance fall for the seventeenth straight month.” He added: “There are now 68,000 more people in work and around 32,000 fewer people claiming jobseekers allowance than one year ago.”
The jobs boost has been driven by a big jump in the number of full-time workers, which is up by 11,000, following previous concerns that part-time jobs and self-employment were fuelling job rises.
There has been a big rise in unemployment among men, of about 11,000, although the number of men in work has jumped by about 17,000. The number of jobless women fell by 8,000, while women in work jumped by 46,000 over the year to December.
Liz Cameron, chief executive of Scottish Chambers of Commerce, welcomed the increase in female employment over the past year. She said: “It is encouraging to see more women in Scotland moving into work, enabling businesses to take advantage of a wide pool of expertise.
“However, these figures act as a reminder that a level of fragility remains in the employment market as Scottish unemployment rose by 3,000. A focused business-led effort, supported by policymakers, is required to address the skills shortages our businesses are reporting. This will enable people in Scotland to develop the skills required to succeed in the labour market.”
Andy Willox, Scottish policy convener at the Federation of Small Businesses, said the growing jobless total showed there was still a “big economic challenge”. He added: “We need to keep giving our small enterprises the support they need to drive the recovery.”
STUC general-secretary Grahame Smith said: “Today’s figures include some more positive news on the Scottish labour market but confirm that recovery remains very slow.
“Youth unemployment continues to stagnate at a high level with the unemployment rate for 16-to-24-year-olds falling by only 0.1 per cent in the year to December. We also know that far too many of the jobs that are being created are low paid and insecure, while the number of those needing more hours at work to make a decent living remains far too high.”
Across the UK, unemployment fell by 77,000 in the quarter to February to 2.24m. The jobless rate of 6.9 per cent is the lowest for five years. The numbers in work have reached a record 30.3m.
The claimant count fell by 30,400 in March to 1.14m, the 17th consecutive monthly reduction, and self-employment increased by 146,000 to 4.5m, the highest since records began in 1992.
Long-term and youth unemployment have both fallen UK-wide. There are 1.42m people working part-time because they cannot find full-time work, a fall of 17,000 over the quarter, but 10,000 higher than a year ago.
Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander said: “These figures are some of the strongest evidence yet that we are embedding the recovery. We have record numbers in work and unemployment falling at the fastest rate in over a decade.
“With earnings now rising in line with prices and employment rising, these figures reinforce the fact that the only way to higher living standards is to take the difficult decisions needed to deliver our long-term economic plan.
“There is more to do, but today’s announcement is solid progress on building the stronger economy in a fairer society that Liberal Democrats entered coalition to deliver.”
David Bell: The labour market remains grey area for campaigners
Politicians on both sides of the referendum debate must be watching the monthly stock-take of the Scottish labour market by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) with increasing anxiety.
The ONS measures of employment and unemployment are among the very few current economic indicators of the Scottish economy that can be relied to be timely, objective and reasonably accurate.
Yesterday’s numbers provide some comfort to both sides. Employment has never been higher in Scotland. In 1992, during the last major economic recession, it fell to 2.20 million. The latest ONS estimate, which covered the period December 2013 to February 2014, shows Scottish employment has risen to 2.58 million, its highest level since 1992.
Almost 137,000 jobs have been added to the Scottish workforce since the low point for the labour market in the current recession.
Yet Scottish unemployment increased by 3,000 between the quarter from December 2013 to February 2014 and the preceding quarter. It fell by 79,000 in England and 6,000 in Wales over the same period. Unemployment in Scotland fell by 18,000 in the year to February 2014, but by 19,000 in Wales and 279,000 in England over the same period. Even after accounting for population size, the Scottish labour market has been less successful than the rest of the UK in reducing unemployment in the last year.
Yet given its robust employment growth, the explanation for Scotland’s relatively poor unemployment record cannot be due to job cutbacks. Employment and unemployment have been growing simultaneously in Scotland over the last year because the number of people either in a job, or looking for a job has been increasing: Scotland’s economic activity rate – the proportion of the population in work or looking for work – has been rising. In the last quarter, Scotland’s activity rate rose by 0.6 per cent to 78.5 per cent and in so doing passed the UK rate, which rose by 0.2 per cent to 78.2 per cent.
Having a greater proportion of the population that have a job, or want to find work, indicates that workers have confidence in the functioning of the Scottish labour market.
This is not as simple a message as those campaigning in the referendum might be seeking. These data do not provide any particular messages for either side on how the Scottish labour market might behave after independence.
• David Bell is professor of economics at Stirling University