Saturday, August 9, 2014

Teenagers suffering most from slow growth

I hate to say it, but the spectacular events that hit the headlines aren't necessarily the things most worth worrying about. The big news on the economy this week was the spectacular jump in the unemployment rate from 6 per cent to 6.4 per just during July. Not a big worry.

Question is, what does it prove? That the economy fell into a hole around the middle of the year? Doubt it. There's little other evidence that it did and a lot that it didn't.

That the slow upward creep in unemployment we've been seeing for about two years may have accelerated? Doubt that, too. Again, the other economic indicators aren't pointing that way.

(Indeed, some economists have been wondering if unemployment was close to peaking. So far this year employment has grown by an average of 15,600 jobs a month, compared with just 5100 a month last year.)

That the unemployment figures are volatile from month to month and this is an unexplained statistical blip that should be corrected next month? Seems a bit too big for that.

Truth is it's hard to know what the problem is. Easier to be sure when we've seen another month or two's figures.

But my guess is it's a once-only upward step in the measured rate of unemployment, caused by a seemingly small change in the questions that people in the Bureau of Statistics' monthly survey are asked so as to ascertain whether they've been "actively" seeking a job if they don't have one.

The change - made partly because of the switch to searching for jobs on the internet rather than at Centrelink - seems to have led to more people being classed as unemployed and fewer as "not in the labour force".

If this guess proves right, it's not so worrying. It doesn't change reality, just the way we measure it. In any case, we've long known that the official measure of unemployment is very narrow and understates the extent of the problem.

That's why the bureau publishes every quarter a broader measure of unemployment, which takes the official unemployment rate and adds the under-employed - people with jobs who aren't working as many hours a week as they'd like to - to give the "labour force underutilisation rate".

The figures for May show narrowly measured unemployment of 6 per cent, and an underemployment rate of 7.5 per cent, to give a broader measure of 13.5 per cent.

Less spectacular than this month's jump in the official rate but, to me, more worthy of worry is news that hasn't hit the headlines: the rapid worsening in teenage unemployment.

Whereas so far this year the trend rate of overall unemployment has risen by 0.2 percentage points, the trend rate for people aged 15 to 19 has risen by 2.8 percentage points to 19.3 per cent.

Note, this doesn't mean almost one youth in five is unemployed. Most people that age are in full-time education, so aren't in the calculation. Turns out about one in 20 of all 15 to 19 year-olds is unemployed and looking for a full-time job.

Many people have it in their heads that unemployment rises because people lose their jobs and employment falls. That's true only in recessions. It's rare for employment to fall - it fell only briefly even during the global financial crisis.

No, the main reason unemployment rises outside of recessions is that the economy isn't growing fast enough to employ all the extra people joining the labour force from education, as immigrants or as mothers rejoining.

That's what's been happening over the past two years. And young people - particularly those who leave school or training too early - have borne most of the burden of insufficient job creation. We should be doing much better by them than Work for the Dole and denying them benefits for six months to keep them hungry.

But there's nothing spectacular about this quiet suffering, so it doesn't hit the headlines. Much better to scandalise over factory closures, which surely signal the end of the world. So let's look at the facts on retrenchment, courtesy of a Bureau of Statistics study.

About 2 million people left their jobs over the year to February 2013 (the latest period for which figures are available). About 60 per cent of these left voluntarily and 21 per cent left because of their illness or injury, leaving 19 per cent - 380,000 - who left because they were retrenched.

That's a rate of retrenchment of 3.1 per cent. The rate hit 4 per cent in 2000, but then fell to a low of 2 per cent in 2008, just before the global financial crisis, then increased sharply to 3.1 per cent in 2010, where it has pretty much stayed since.

Over the year to 2013, all industries experienced retrenchments, but the most were in construction, 65,000; retailing, 40,000; and manufacturing, just under 40,000.

But the number of people employed in particular industries differs a lot so, judged by rate of retrenchment, utilities and construction come equal first with 6.4 per cent, then mining with 6 per cent, pushing manufacturing into fourth place with 4.5 per cent.

The rate of retrenchment is consistently higher for men because men tend to dominate those industries where retrenchment rates are higher, whereas retrenchment rates tend to be lower in industries dominated by women workers, such as education and health.

The likelihood of being retrenched falls as your level of educational attainment rises. We're more conscious of older workers being laid off but, in fact, retrenchment is greatest among workers aged 25 to 44.

And what happens to people who're laid off? For those retrenched over the year to February 2013, half were back in jobs by the end of the year, leaving 29 per cent unemployed and 21 per cent not in the labour force.