Much of the commentary on the December job figures released last week — which, inconveniently for doom-mongers, only showed a slight rise in unemployment — focussed on the down-scaling of hours worked. Nevertheless, for an economy about to plunge into recession, employment is looking particularly resilient. Moreover, despite predictions of a collapse in mineral prices, there’s still plenty of evidence of a two-speed economy at work.

NSW continues to lead the way in unemployment among the big states with 5.2%, although South Australia now claims the lead with 5.3%. But Queensland, at 3.9%, and particularly Western Australia (2.8%) continue to look like tight labour markets for employers.

The big difference in employment recent months has been that, while NSW and Sydney in particular continues to worsen, the anaemic employment growth or actual decline in jobs that previously characterised the Premier State has started to spread into other capital cities, which had previously shown resilience in the face of predictions of a downturn.

Regional employment data, which illustrated just how poorly Sydney has performed in 2007, show that in November suburban Sydney continued to lose jobs: out of 33 regions across the country that saw unemployment rise in November, six were in Sydney. But Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide too began to show rises in unemployment, albeit to significantly lower levels. In no metropolitan area outside Sydney did unemployment reach over 5%.

But the most disturbing feature of the Sydney data is the high levels now showing up: 6.5% in north-western Sydney; 8.9% in Fairfield-Liverpool; 7.4% in Canterbury-Bankstown (including 10% male unemployment — the only double-digit number in the country). The only good news from NSW is in the Illawarra, where job growth was strong enough to bring unemployment in Wollongong below 5% for the first time since 2005.

Canterbury apart, however, rising unemployment and the shift to part-time work aren’t gender-specific; both men and women are being hit, reflecting the industries where employment is falling: manufacturing, wholesale and retail, tourism and restaurants and finance (where Sydney is hit particularly hard).

In WA and Queensland, however, employment remains defiantly strong. In WA, unemployment fell among both men and women in December, albeit with a slight fall in full-time employment, but with increases in the participation rate, which among Western Australian women reached 61% for the first time.

The picture isn’t quite as rosy in Queensland, where full-time employment fell and unemployment rose, although only to 3.9%. This disguises some regional variations, however — unemployment fell significantly in Brisbane, down 0.3% to 2.9%, and only rose in one area of the city — in the Outer Ring region, where it reached an onerous 2.2%. Jobseekers in the Sunshine State might be well-advised to move to the Big Smoke.

It’s clear that NSW continues to be the biggest economic problem in the country. Not all of it is the fault of its dysfunctional Rees/Robertson/whoever-is-next Government — Sydney’s finance sector has been hit hard by the financial crisis. But it pays to keep looking behind the jobs data. Things aren’t nearly as bad as commentators — especially those based in Sydney — might suggest.

Peter Fray

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