Not worth the paper they’re written on or fundamentally sound? It’s hard to judge from today’s unemployment data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which served up the sort of confusion that’s become almost standard in the monthly labour force report. How healthy is the jobs market? Probably much the same as it was a month or three previously — sluggish, and not adding enough jobs to soak up the growth in the pool of possible employees, but not in trouble.
According to the Bureau, Australia’s estimated seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for September was steady at 6.2% (technically it was a fall of 0.1 percentage points “based on unrounded estimates” from August). That was despite a small fall — 5,100 — in the number of people estimated to have been employed (out of 11.769 million) and a fall of 8,100 in the number of people believed to be unemployed (772,500) in the same month. The seasonally adjusted participation rate fell 0.2 percentage points to 64.9% in September, from 65.0% in August — but that’s still a solid gain on a year ago. One of the few things former Treasurer Joe Hockey can boast is that the fall in our participation rate ended (even if only temporarily) on his watch.
Offsetting the fall in full-time employment of 13,900 was a rise in part-time employment of 8900, driven by female part-timers (everyone else fell), with male full-time employment down 11,000. But the seasonally adjusted monthly hours worked in all jobs series increased in September 2015, up 12.2 million hours (0.7%) to 1638 million hours. That’s very good news — but hard to square with the fall in employment in the month (maybe employers lifted the hours of employees, while putting off some surplus labour rather than employing new workers).
The best performer was New South Wales, where unemployment fell 0.1 point to 5.9%. Victoria was up by the same amount to 6.2%; Queensland was down 0.1 point to 6.3%; South Australia recorded a 0.2-point fall to 7.7%, and Western Australia was stable at 6.1%. But both the west and SA recorded big falls in their participation rates.
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How do you interpret these numbers? Some economists predicted little change, others saw up to 9000 new jobs being created in September; there was a feeling that this report would not be strong after solid reports for the previous three months. But it is also interesting that this confusing report came as the Australian Financial Review carried the views of former Australian Statistician (i.e. ABS boss) Bill McLennan, who said we were not to trust the monthly labour force survey. In McLennan’s views (he retired in 2000) “the results of the last six months aren’t worth the paper they’re written on, so why are we wasting millions of taxpayers money on the survey?”
Even if the numbers are off, though, the message continues to be that the jobs market is holding up in the face of tepid economic growth — but we’re only just holding the line. In employment terms, that Turnbull-inspired surge of confidence can’t come soon enough.