Some more perspective on an economy in transition emerged yesterday with the ABS’ quarterly detailed jobs data, which gives us an industry-based perspective on the workforce.

Unsurprisingly, mining continues to grow strongly — 25,000 jobs in the three months to May on a seasonally adjusted basis, out of an overall net workforce growth across the country of 60,000.

But reports of the death of manufacturing and retail continue to be exaggerated. The manufacturing sector lost 18,000 jobs in the quarter but that simply reversed a jump in the previous quarter. In trend terms, manufacturing grew fractionally in job numbers. The hardest-hit subsector was food and beverage manufacturing. And retail was flat — gaining 3000 seasonally adjusted jobs in a 1.2 million workforce.

If both sectors are in trouble, things seemed to pause overall in the first part of 2012. But retail did have a high level of underemployment — the ABS has now started estimating underemployment by industry, and its first effort shows retailing, hospitality and arts and recreation services with the highest levels of underemployment.

If you’re looking for a beleaguered sector, try construction. Even as we debate bringing foreign workers in to build mining mega-projects, the sector lost 23,000 jobs in the quarter, taking it below 1 million jobs and back to the levels seen at the depths of the financial crisis. This reflects the simple maths of the slump in residential housing construction: no matter how many mega-projects you build, they won’t make up for a healthy housing sector employing tradies across the nation.

And, in fact, it’s labourers who have the second highest level of underemployment in terms of job categories, after community and personal services — more than 16% of labourers report wanting more hours.

The strongest growing sector, however, isn’t mining, but in services: the nebulous “Professional, Scientific and Technical” category, which includes the professions other than medicine as well as research-related industries. That put on a whopping 42,000 seasonally adjusted jobs in the quarter, taking it more than 900,000 jobs for the first time and into the top league of Australian industries in terms of employment — the sector has expanded by more than a quarter since the beginning of 2007, a rate of growth surpassed only by mining’s near-doubling. Health resumed its expansion after a monetary pause at the end of 2011; at 1,357,000, it is easily our biggest employer.

And just to demonstrate that not all the structural change is going on in manufacturing or retail, the agricultural/forestry/fisheries workforce lifted by 13,000 jobs to 351,000 in the quarter (the vast bulk of jobs in the sector are in agriculture). That’s not surprising with the breaking of the drought and the lift in agricultural yields.

But the rate of recovery reflects a sector that was put through the grinder by drought: the current number of people in the sector is still no higher than, and in fact in many cases well below, the levels of agricultural employment seen even during the worst depths of the drought throughout the past decade.

According to ABARES, this year will see the highest level of agricultural exports in nominal terms ever, and the highest in real terms since 2002-03. But back then, the sector employed 370,000-400,000 people. Agriculture is one sector where labour productivity isn’t an issue.

Peter Fray

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