Which industry employs the most people in Australia? Quick — retail? Construction? Manufacturing?

About 12 months ago, health and social assistance quietly assumed the mantle of Australia’s biggest employer, taking over from retail.

Last week the ABS released its quarterly breakdown of employment by industry and as always it provides a reality check on our impressions of what is important economically.

Health care and social assistance has been growing at a steady rate for decades and, not surprisingly, show no sign of slowing its growth as a major employer. Indeed, its rate of growth will presumably accelerate with an ageing population. In the August quarter it accounted for 1.27 million Australian jobs, or just over 11% of industry jobs accounted for under the ABS’s figures. That’s up from 8% in the mid-1980s. Bear that in mind as the productivity debate takes off again.

Retail peaked at just under 12% of the workforce in 2003 but has been above 10% since data was first recorded. Despite the government’s stimulus packages, its share of the workforce has fallen slightly in the wake of the GFC, leaving the remorselessly growing health sector to overtake it. Mining continues to be the smallest major industries but is now the biggest it has ever been: after falling to a GFC low of 1.3% of the workforce, mining has steadily recovered and now provides 1.7% of Australian jobs. However, this only puts it slightly above its level of the mid-1980s, testament to the extraordinary productivity growth in the sector over the past two decades.

But over the past two years, something interesting appears to have happened in Australian agriculture. From 1984, when it employed more than 6% of Australian workers, to 2007, when it reached a nadir of less than 3.3% of jobs, agriculture fell consistently, year in and year out. There was a big fall associated with the drought in 2002, from which the sector never recovered in employment terms, but the fall has been long-standing and driven by technology and the expansion and corporatisation of farms.

Since late 2007, however, agriculture’s share of the workforce has stabilised at about 3.3%, the longest period of stability since the ABS started tracking industry numbers. In light of the past four weeks, that, coincidentally or otherwise, means the Rudd government presided over one of the few things that is ever going to drive genuine “regional development” — the stabilisation of the agricultural workforce.

And construction — belying the traditional view that “muscle jobs” for working-class men are in decline — has strengthened over recent decades and maintained its share of jobs in the face of the GFC, despite the efforts of Labor’s critics to claim that the stimulus packages didn’t work.


Manufacturing however, has continued its historic decline. Manufacturing in trend terms fell below 1 million workers earlier this year and has remained below it since — making things now employs less than 9% of the workforce.

In 1984, manufacturing was king, with more than 1 in 6 of all Australian workers engaged in the sector. But its steady decline was already under way by then and the Hawke government’s micro-economic reform agenda only confirmed a long-term trend. The fall in manufacturing’s significance –0 in 2006 it dropped below 10% of jobs — continues with each quarter’s numbers. Meantime, professional services, such as lawyers and consultants, have almost doubled in the past 25 years.

That makes it all the more peculiar that our obsession with manufacturing continues to skew government policies, with billions spent on supporting traditional, union-heavy sectors such as automotive manufacturing, and state governments committing to local preference plans, potentially in breach of free trade agreements. The myth, which to talk in stereotypical terms is one of the Left, that manufacturing is a ‘real job’ compared to service industries dies hard, even as the sector itself has performed an extended death spiral and ‘non-real’ jobs such as looking after the elderly have proliferated.

The idea that manufacturing is somehow more economically durable and “strategic” provides an interesting gender parallel, by the way — manufacturing is always contrasted with service industries that have higher rates of female participation, such as retail, or health sector jobs, or education; for that matter, manufacturing industries such as TCF, which have a much higher female participation rate than traditional male blue-collar sectors such as automotive manufacturing, tend to attract less government assistance than the latter.

And one more interesting figure that might be lost: you’d assume with outsourcing, privatisation and the growing use of contractors that the overall size of the public sector as an employer (including police and the ADF, but not health sector workers, and teachers, who fall into other categories) would have fallen in the past quarter-century. That’s certainly the case in media and telecommunications, which in the past 25 years has fallen from more than 3% to less than 2% as an employer, courtesy of Telstra’s corporation and privatisation. But no, the overall public sector has actually increased slightly.

As a proportion of the overall workforce, the public sector started falling during the Hawke years, then increased during the early 1990s recession (far fewer bureaucrats than private sector workers lose their jobs during recessions), fell again during the 1990s and then, from 2000, rose again, back to more than 6% of the workforce as the Howard-era Australian Public Service rapidly expanded, even as the rest of the workforce surged with the mining boom. It has stayed at that level ever since.