Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Job prospects not as gloomy as you may think

I can always tell when people are getting anxious about unemployment - including their own. It's when a journalist thinks they'll be increasing the sum of human knowledge by adding up the number of redundancies announced in recent weeks.

The latest list is Qantas 5000, Holden 2900 (by 2017), Toyota 2500 (by 2017), Forge Group 1470, Alcoa 980, Sensis 800, WA hospitals 250 and BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance 230.

That's more than 14,000, we're told, and doesn't count the expected job loss among the makers of car parts, which "experts" put at between 25,000 and 50,000. To this you can add declining job opportunities among public servants - though no one seems to worry much about them.

There are two tricks in exercises such as this. The first is that although 14,000 or even 64,000 may seem huge numbers, they're not. Most people have no feel for just how big our economy is. Those figures have to be seen in the context of a total workforce of 11.5 million people, which grows by 170,000 in an average year, or more that 14,000 a month.

Most people have no idea how much turnover there is in the jobs market. Every month tens of thousands of people leave their jobs and a similar or bigger number take up new jobs. The economy is in a continuous state of flux.

The second trick is that the media only ever show us the tip of the iceberg. We're told about only a fraction of the things that happen. Only a fraction of them are announced to the media, so most of what happens goes unreported. And among all the things that are announced, the media select just a few of the juicier items to tell us about.

The items they select tend to be the bigger and badder ones. News that a new business has just hired 100 workers may get reported somewhere - probably in the local rag - but it won't get the trumpeting Qantas' announcement did.

So we're told about the big job losses but not the small losses and almost nothing about the job gains, big or small - even though we know from the official statistics that the gains usually outnumber the losses.

When people hear news reports about redundancies at this factory and that, many conclude we must be heading for recession. This time it ain't that simple. After a record 21 years since the severe recession of the early 1990s, we're overdue for another one and, with the economy quite weak at present, it wouldn't be impossible for us to slide into recession this year.

But the explanation for the planned job losses we're hearing so much about isn't a downturn in the economy, it's continuing change in the structure of the economy - the size of some industries relative to others.

Much of the pressure for structural change is coming from advances in technology, particularly the digital revolution. It's this that's turning the newspaper industry inside out - no one seems to shed many tears over us - and is in the early stages of cutting a swath through retailing.

In Qantas' case, it's still making the painful adjustment to the deregulation of airlines initiated by Jimmy Carter in the 1970s, combined with management incompetence and union intransigence.

But the biggest source of structural change is the resources boom and the likely permanent rise in the dollar it has brought about. People tell you it's all behind us, but when the mining industry's share of the economy doubles to 10 per cent in the space of a decade, the adjustment this imposes on the rest of the economy is profound and protracted.

Clearly, these forces for structural change are beyond the control of any federal government, Labor or Coalition. The truth so many people find so hard to accept is that there isn't a lot we can do about them except ride them out.

In its impotence, the Abbott government is claiming its plans to remove the mining and carbon taxes will be a great help. Only the one-eyed would believe that. Labor has sunk to the depths of attacking the government for its failure to protect Australian jobs and demands to see its "jobs plan". What's Labor's jobs plan? Maintain the handouts to crumbling industries.

It's seeking to exploit the fears of people who are uncertain about where it's all going to end. Well, last week Dr David Gruen, of Treasury, published projections of the various industries' shares of total employment in 16 years' time, 2030.

I must warn you these figures come with zero guarantee. Just because you're smart enough to turn the handle of an incomprehensible econometric model doesn't mean you know any more about what the future holds than the rest of us.

Surprisingly, the projections suggest manufacturing's share of total employment will decline by only a further 1 percentage point. Similar declines are projected in transport and warehousing, construction and (thankfully) financial services. The biggest relative employment decline would be in wholesale and retail trade.

Utilities, media and telecommunications, and, surprisingly, mining are projected to experience minor declines in their shares of total employment. Agriculture's share may rise by a percentage point, while that of education and health may rise by more than 1.5 points, and professional and administrative services by almost 3 percentage points.

We won't all be dead.