Showing posts with label youth unemployment. Show all posts
Showing posts with label youth unemployment. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

It's not jobs we're short of, it's jobs that pay decent wages

When it comes to knowing what’s going on in the jobs market, there’s a bit more to it than being able to remember the present rate of unemployment. It helps to know why the unemployment rate is at the level it is, and what that implies for the family’s future finances.

In case you’ve gone deaf – or just stopped listening – Scott Morrison wants you to know the rate of unemployment has been falling rapidly over the past six months, and is now a fraction under 4 per cent.

That’s the lowest it’s been in about 50 years.

But wait, there’s more. Morrison said last week his priorities are “jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs and jobs”. To which effect he’s promising to create a further 1.3 million over the next five years. This will be on top of the 1.9 million jobs already created since the Coalition returned to power in 2013.

The growth in employment and the fall in unemployment since the economy’s massive contraction during the “coronacession” in the June quarter of 2020 is a truly remarkable achievement, for which the Morrison government deserves much credit. Don’t let any carping Labor critic convince you otherwise.

Don’t let anyone tell you the government has changed the definition of unemployment. It isn’t true. What is true is that the problem of underemployment – people who have jobs, but aren’t able to find as many hours as they’d like – is a bigger problem today than it was 50 years ago.

But the rate of underemployment has fallen to 6.3 per cent, down from 8.8 per cent two years ago, and the lowest it’s been since 2008.

In any case, almost all the 395,000 net extra jobs created since the start of the pandemic two years ago are full-time.

Next, get this. The proportion of the working-age population holding a job now stands at 63.8 per cent – the highest it has ever been.

And the biggest winners in this have been young people. Their rate of employment is 4.6 percentage points higher than it was two years ago. The rate for people aged 25 to 64 is up 1.9 percentage points, while the rate for those aged 65 and over is up 0.4 points.

But all the growth in employment hasn’t been sufficient to meet the demand from employers. The number of job vacancies is at a record level of 423,500. That is, getting on for a half a million job openings are going begging.

Now, let me ask you a question: does it sound to you as though our big problem at present is an acute shortage of jobs, jobs, jobs?

If you’ve heard of generals fighting the last war rather than coming to grips with the present one, now you know that prime ministers are prone to the same mistake.

So, why is Morrison claiming to have made getting us a lot more jobs his priority, when there must surely be more pressing problems he should be focused on? Two reasons.

One is that Australia’s had a problem with insufficient jobs – aka high rates of unemployment – since the late 1970s. This was the case for so long – did I mention 50 years? – the notion that a shortage of jobs is an eternal feature of economic life is now lodged deeply in many people’s minds.

And, as is the practice of modern politicians, Morrison finds it easier to pander to our misconceptions than to straighten them out.

“You think we can never have enough jobs? OK, I promise to create another 1.3 million of ’em.”

But how on earth do we finally seem to have got on top of a 50-year problem? Mainly because our first recession in almost 30 years turned out to be more benign than any we’ve had.

In particular, the government spent unprecedented multi-billions on the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme, which was designed to preserve the link between employers and their workers, even when they had no work for their workers to do. It worked brilliantly.

The billions federal and state governments spent on this and many other programs to protect the incomes of businesses and workers have given an enormous boost to the demand for workers.

But remember, this surge in demand came at a time when our borders were closed to our usual supply of imported labour: overseas students, backpackers and skilled workers on temporary visas.

Now that our borders have reopened, the demand for workers will increase, but so will their supply. If employment does grow by 1.3 million in the next five years, it will be mainly because of population growth, coming mainly from immigration.

The other reason Morrison wants to talk about jobs, jobs, jobs is to direct our attention towards his economic successes and away from his economic failure: since a year or two before the Coalition’s election in 2013, wages have struggled to keep up with the rising cost of living.

If Anthony Albanese was a sharper politician, he’d be telling us his priorities were wages, wages, wages.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The young will carry the worst scars from this recession

When Scott Morrison spoke to the first day of the National Youth Commission's virtual "youth futures summit" on Monday, he sought to assure the young people that, difficult as the pandemic and the economy are at the moment, there is another side to it, "where Australia emerges once again, where we actually do go back to the life that we loved".

I'm sure that's true. But if past recessions are any guide, most of us will have recovered from the coronacession and be back enjoying the life we love long before most of the present crop of youngsters leaving education have found themselves a decent job.

If the past is any guide, the government won't do nearly as much as it should to help those youngsters who, "through no fault of their own", as Morrison would say, had the immense misfortune to be born in the wrong year or three.

And, quite apart from the pain so many young people will suffer, the money the taxpayer saves from that neglect is likely to be exceeded by all the subsequent cost to the budget in healthcare, unemployment benefits and workers whose reduced incomes mean they don't pay as much tax as they might have.

The greatest burden of recessions always falls on the young for the simple reason that employers' automatic response to a recession is to cancel their annual intake of school and university leavers. The deeper the recession, and the slower the recovery from it, the more years that entry-level hiring is postponed.

This was the case for many years after the global financial crisis of 2008 even though, for the rest of us, a recession was avoided.

You've heard that, unusually in this recession, the greatest burden has fallen on women rather than men. But this can be true while it remains true that the young are the greatest losers. That's because a disproportionate share of the women is young.

As summarised for the summit by the independent economist Saul Eslake, recent research by Treasury has found that people who enter the jobs market for the first time during a recession are less likely to change jobs – which means they're more likely to miss out on one of the main ways by which people get pay rises during their first 10 years in the workforce (that is, by changing jobs).

This matters because almost 80 per cent of lifetime wage rises occur during the first 10 years of someone's working life. So the "scarring" effect of leaving education in a bad year lasts for 10 years.

Treasury finds that the scarring effect has been bigger since 2000 than it was in earlier recessions, so that the most recent generations of young people have been affected more than previous generations. And it's worse for women than for men.

All this is consistent with the interim findings of a nationwide inquiry into youths' transition from education to employment, which the National Youth Commission published on Monday. It finds that unemployment for 15- to 24-year-olds is consistently higher than for 25- to 64-year-olds. And that traditional pathways to employment for young people have eroded over the past couple of decades.

One thing that's changed over the years is the growth of underemployment. To the present unemployment rate of 7.5 per cent and rising must be added the underemployment rate of 11.2 per cent, representing those who have some paid work but want more.

Just remember it's the young who dominate the underemployed. Many of them have multiple jobs, but still can't make ends meet. Many are in the "gig economy", whom governments have allowed to be defined as "independent contractors", thus permitting those wonderful innovative outfits that run app-based fast-food delivery and all the rest to sidestep the legal obligations of an employer.

Remember, too, that the seeming epidemic of "wage theft" – which, by their neglect, governments have done too much to allow and too little stamp out – would be perpetrated particularly on the young.

Unsurprisingly, the inquiry found the (pre-pandemic) levels of the youth allowance and unemployment benefits – which successive governments have frozen in real terms for 25 years – are inadequate. It's the young who suffer most from this parsimony.

Morrison and his ministers have repeatedly defended the $40 a day by saying people are on the dole only temporarily before they find a job. That was certainly the reasonable expectation in the past. Now, however, it's one of the respects in which the inquiry found the system no longer fit for purpose.

Another respect is, it's no longer true that most jobs for young people are full-time. Only in the past month has the government temporarily changed the means test to encourage the unemployed to look for part-time jobs. Pity so few of them are on offer at the minute.

The youth commission has proposed a detailed "youth futures guarantee" laying out reforms and measures that would better support our young people in meeting the challenges they face. Challenged to respond to the proposal, Morrison was masterfully noncommittal.
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Wednesday, August 19, 2020

We've been electing governments that damage our kids' future

One of the most dismal ideas for our youth to entertain is that their lives won't be as comfortable as their parents'. Everyone in the older generation knows how much their lives have improved over the decades, and how much better off we are than our parents were.

We've come to regard continuous improvement in living standards and quality of life over the generations as part of the natural order. Our pay-off for living in a capitalist economy.

So how can our kids have become so pessimistic about the future? How can they imagine their parents would allow such an appalling prospect to befall their offspring? Isn't improving their kids' chances in life a big part of the reason parents work so hard?

Isn't it why so many parents pay so much to send their kids to private schools? Isn't preserving their kids' inheritance the reason the well-off retired fought so hard against Labor's plan to take away their dividend franking credits?

How could any government that presided over a significant deterioration in our children's prospects hope to survive?

Trouble is, the kids are right to be so pessimistic. We can't know what the future holds, but we do know that various trends in that direction are well-established.

And the plain truth is that one way governments have got themselves elected and re-elected in recent decades has been to pursue policies that favour the old and don't worry about the young.

Politicians have been tempting us to put our immediate interests ahead of our offspring's future – and it's worked a treat.

This week the Actuaries Institute of Australia published a new index of intergenerational equity, which compares the "wealth and wellbeing" of people aged 65 to 74 with that of people aged 25 to 34 between 2000 and 2018.

Note that this is before any effect of the coronacession. And remember that the faces in these two aged groups keep changing as people age. No one who was between 65 and 74 in 2000 is still in that group now.

Since the Baby Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964, probably more than half of them were in the 65 to 74 age range by 2018. And the Millennials were joining the 25 to 34-year-olds.

The actuaries have divided "wealth and wellbeing" into six "domains": economic and fiscal (allocated a subjective weighting of 30 per cent in the index), health and disability (20 per cent), social (including rates of homelessness, incarceration and being a victim of robbery; 15 per cent), environment (15 per cent), education (10 per cent) and housing (10 per cent).

The scores for people aged 65 to 74 in 2000 were given an index value of 100. In the same year, the scores of people aged 25 to 34 amounted to 70. It's hardly surprising that people 40 years younger have significantly lower scores. They've had much less time to gain promotion, earn, save and pay off a home (or even receive an inheritance).

No, what matters more is how the two groups' scores have changed over time. Over the 18 years, the older group's score has risen to 115, whereas the younger group's score has fallen to 69.

Turning to the size of the young's deficit relative to the old, it improved from minus 30 to minus 11 between 2000 and 2006 – presumably mainly because the young did well in the resources-boom-driven labour market – but then deteriorated to minus 20 by 2012.


That year, 2012, was when the resources boom started winding down. And it was when the Baby Boomers started reaching 65. Over just the six years to 2018, the young's deficit relative to the old worsened dramatically to minus 46.

But why has the position of the young relative to the old deteriorated so badly since 2006? Well, they've benefited from improving health, as life expectancy has increased and rates of disability have decreased.

They've benefited also from increasing levels of educational attainment and, socially, from modest reductions in the gender pay gap and falling rates of robbery (which affect the young more than the old).

But these gains have been more than countered by losses in other domains. In ascending order of loss, young people have suffered economically as, since the global financial crisis, education-leavers have taken much longer to find full-time jobs; government spending has been skewed towards older generations (higher spending on health, pensions and aged care, but less on the rate of unemployment benefits) and public debt has risen.

The young have suffered in housing, as the rate of home ownership for their age group has dropped from 51 per cent to 37 per cent over the past two decades. But their greatest loss (sure to grow in coming years) is from the deterioration in the natural environment: rising carbon emissions and temperatures, the drying Murray-Darling Basin and declining biodiversity.

And all these trends before the likely weak and prolonged recovery from the coronacession scars the careers and lives of another generation of education-leavers, without governments or voters being too worried about it.
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Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Technology is amazing, but human nature is unchanging

When momentous events such as the coronavirus pandemic occur, it's tempting to conclude they'll change our lives forever. Even if we don't think it, you can be sure there'll be some overexcited journalists saying it. Just as there were after the attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11 in 2001.

Even then I was too old to believe it would "change our lives forever" and – although it did have lasting effects on international relations and our fear of terrorism – it didn't really.

This time people are telling us we'll all be working from home (with city office blocks and streets turning into ghost towns), doing our shopping online, learning online, seeing doctors online, and no longer doing business travel.

Somehow, I doubt it will be that radical. But I don't doubt there'll be change in all those directions. Most of them were already happening as part of the continuing digital revolution, and this will accelerate those trends.

The revolution's usual pattern is to bring modest benefits – greater "functionality" (machines that do more and better tricks) and convenience – to an industry's customers, while turning the industry on its head, with considerable disruption to the lives of many of its workers.

There was a time when watching television meant seeing only what the few available channels happened to be showing at the time. These days, recorders and catch-up apps and a multitude of free-to-air and for-the-small-fee channels and streaming video have given us vastly more choice.

This has meant huge upheaval for the industry, but improved our lives only to a small extent – something we've soon come to take for granted.

Some people (and not just Victorians) are finding it hard to imagine the pandemic will ever be over. But, though we can't be sure when, it will end. And when it does, far more aspects of the way we live and work will go back to the way they were than will change forever.

Truth be told, and unless we do a lot more to correct it, the biggest and baddest continuing effect of the pandemic will be on the careers of young people leaving education during the recession and what looks like being a long and weak recovery.

Staying serious, we can expect more concern about problems in health than in education. More concern about physical health than mental health. More concern about the problems of the old than those of the young.

Nothing new about any of that – except that Scott Morrison's heroic condemnation of those on his own side of politics suggesting that the lives of the elderly should have been "offered up" in the interests of the economy sits oddly with his and all federal politicians' tolerance of decades-long neglect and misregulation of aged care.

(As economists make themselves unpopular by pointing out, every time politicians decide to spare taxpayers the expense of fixing a level-crossing or in some other way saving "just one person" they are implicitly putting a dollar value on human life. They do so on our behalf and we rarely tell them to stop doing it. The term "cognitive dissonance" comes to mind.)

But I'm determined to keep it light this week, so on with happy chat about the pros and cons of new technology.

It's worth remembering that advances in digital technology have made the lockdown and social distancing tolerable – indeed, doable – in a way that wouldn't have been possible 20 years ago. Far more of us work as "symbolic analysts" (people who spend all day making changes on a screen) these days. Get access to all the office's programs on your laptop at home? Easy. Zoom to endless and unending meetings? Feel free.

The virus is likely to hasten technology-driven change because the crisis has broken through our fear of the new and unfamiliar. Both workers and bosses now understand both the pros and the cons of working from home relative to working from work.

We've tried buying groceries online. Doctors, departments of finance and patients have overcome their hang-ups about telemedicine. Online learning suits uni students better than school pupils.

But all these things do have their advantages and disadvantages. And most of the disadvantages are social. For the human animal, social distancing is a deeply unnatural act. We get a lot of our emotional gratification from face-to-face contact.

We communicate more efficiently and we learn things we wouldn't otherwise learn that help us do our job better. Relationships with suppliers, customers and consultants work better when we come to know and like each other.

So I think we'll do more digital remote working, but not turn our working lives over to it. Surveys show most people would like to work from home some days a week, but not all week. Business people may do less travel between capital cities – it could easily become the latest business cost-cutting fad – but it would be amazing if executives stopped wanting to shake hands with the people they deal with.

Technology can change what we do, but it won't change human nature.
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Saturday, August 1, 2020

Morrison’s not doing nearly enough to secure our future

It was obvious this time last week, but even more so a week later: Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg are taking both the continuing threat from the coronavirus and the need to restore the economy far too cheaply. Figuratively and literally.

One thing another week of struggle by Victoria and NSW to contain the virus’s second wave has shown more clearly – plus the realisation of how vulnerable the neglect and misregulation of our aged care sector have left us – is the unreality of the government’s expectations about the effects of the pandemic.

Last week’s economic and budget update assumed Victoria would be back on track in six weeks and NSW’s struggles were too minor to matter. And also that we’ll start opening to international travel in January.

A more realistic assumption would be that the larger, virus-prone half of the economy (NSW and Victoria) will need to stay sealed off from the healthier, smaller half (the other states and the Northern Territory) indefinitely. Half a healthy economy is far from ideal, but it beats none.

Surely we should have realised by now that the pandemic will be a long-haul flight. Speaking of which, our barriers against the rest of the world are likely to stay up long after the 12th day of Christmas.

Economically, we must make the best of it we can – which won’t be anything like as good as we’d like. Forcing the pace on lifting the lockdown and removing the interstate barriers could easily end up setting us back rather than moving us forward.

What economists seem yet to understand is that, psychologically, what we have to do to keep the virus controlled is the opposite to what you’d do to hasten an economic recovery. To ensure people keep mask-wearing, hand-washing, sanitising, social-distancing and filling out a form every time they walk into a cafe for month after month, you keep them in a state of fear, afraid the virus may bite them at any moment.

How will this give them the confidence to get on with spending and investing? It won’t. Quite the opposite. But it’s the first indication Morrison and Frydenberg will need to spend more for longer.

The second thing that’s more obvious now than it was a week ago is that the setback in Victoria and NSW has put a question mark over the signs of an initial bounce-back in the economy as the lockdown has been lifted. The new payroll-based figures for the week to July 11 show jobs falling in all states, not just Victoria and NSW.

All this casts further doubt on the wisdom of the changes to the JobKeeper and JobSeeker programs announced last week. The initial reaction of relief that the government had not gone through with its original plan to end them abruptly in September has given way to the realisation that this threat of dropping the economy off a “fiscal cliff” has been delayed rather than averted.

The new boss of independent think tank the Grattan Institute, Danielle Wood, has estimated that the changes to the two job schemes will reduce the government’s support for the economy by close to $10 billion in the December quarter and thus “leave a substantial hole in the economy”.

In an earlier major report, Grattan argued that the government needed to spend a further $70 billion to $90 billion to secure a recovery. The measures announced last week amount to only about an additional $22 billion.

According to calculations by the ANZ bank’s economics team, the withdrawal of budgetary support amounts to the equivalent of about 10 per cent of quarterly gross domestic product during the December quarter.

In consequence, although the bank agrees with Treasury that real GDP will grow in the present September quarter, it sees the economy returning to contraction in the December quarter. What would that do for business and consumer confidence?

In its earlier report, Grattan said the government should aim to get the unemployment rate back down to 5 per cent or below by mid-2022. Why the hurry? To “reduce the long-term economic pain and avoid scarring people’s lives”.

Particularly young people’s lives – as this week’s report from the Productivity Commission has reminded us.

But the economic update last week forecast the unemployment rate would peak at 9.25 per cent in the December quarter and still be sitting at 8.75 per cent in the middle of next year.

That’s simply not good enough. It puts the interests of the budget deficit ahead of the interests of tens of thousands of Australians thrown out of work through “no fault of their own”, to quote a Mr S. Morrison.

Grattan’s Wood stresses that she has no problem with making the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme better targeted. But that’s not all the government did. It cut back the size of payments and extended the scheme only for another six months.

After the cutback in income support for the jobless and potentially jobless was announced two days before the presentation of the budget update, she hoped the update would include announcements about the new spending programs that would fill the “substantial hole” the cutback left.

It didn’t. Not a sausage.

“The missing piece of the puzzle,” she now says, “remains a plan to stimulate the economy and jobs growth as the income supports are phased out and social distancing restrictions are eased in many parts of the country.”

So what should the government be spending on? She suggests measures that would both create jobs and meet social needs. “Social housing, mental health services, and tutoring to help disadvantaged students catch up on learning lost during the pandemic would deliver on this double dividend.

“Boosting the childcare subsidy to support family incomes and workforce participation should also be in the mix,” she says.

To that you could add fixing aged care, spending more on research and development and universities, not to mention renewable energy.

There’s no shortage of good things worth spending on.
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Saturday, May 23, 2020

Women, part-timers and the young hardest hit by jobs crisis

At a time like this, measuring the rise in joblessness is very important. But it’s a trickier job than many realise. You have to draw boundaries somewhere, and where they should go can always be debated.

But some who don’t like comparing shades of grey think the problem can be reduced to good guys and bad guys. Why do the figures look strange? Because some prime minister a few years back changed the definition of unemployment to make it look smaller. Would you believe that someone who’s worked as little as one hour in a week is counted as employed?

Sorry, this fiddling is an urban myth. The truth isn’t nearly so exciting. But before I deflate the balloon, let me show you the circumstantial evidence.

The most recent figures, for April, show America’s rate of unemployment leaping more than 10 percentage points to 14.7 per cent – in just a month. Canada’s unemployment jumped 5 points to 13 per cent.

What happened to our rate? It crept up from 5.2 per cent to 6.2 per cent. Really? Are you kidding? What’s that if it’s not a fiddle?

Or, consider this. Our figures show that about 900,000 people lost their jobs in the four weeks to mid-April. But they also show that unemployment increased during the period by only about 100,000. How’s that possible? What’s that if it’s not a fiddle?

Actually, it’s support for one of my favourite sayings: the world is a complicated place. There are puzzles everywhere. If you want everything to be black or white – all good or all bad - you should never have left the security of primary school.

So, it may look like a conspiracy, but it ain’t. A sign that we’re dealing with a myth is that the identity of the PM who did the dirty deed changes with the political sympathies of the person who tells you they remember him doing it.

The figures we get each month for how many people are employed, unemployed or neither (“not in the labour force”) come from a huge monthly survey of households conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which brooks no interference from politicians.

The bureau follows international conventions set by the United Nations' International Labour Organisation, in Geneva. Its definitions haven’t changed in many decades. (I once ran into a union-movement economist who was an Australian representative on the ILO committee reviewing the definitions. To my surprise, he staunchly defended the decision to leave them unchanged, including the bit about one hour’s work meaning you were employed.)

As the bureau explains in its release, the main reason the North Americans’ unemployment rates are so much higher than ours has to do with workers who’ve been “stood down” for some weeks because the boss has no work for them, but hopes to bring them back when things improve.

We class such people a still employed, whereas the North Americans class them as unemployed. The bureau estimates that, if we did it the American way, our unemployment rate would be not 6.2 per cent, but 11.7 per cent.

Although about 900,000 Australians ceased to be employed during the four weeks to mid-April, it may amaze you that, in the same period, about 300,000 people went from not having a job to having one. This surprises people because they don’t realise how much coming and going there is in the labour force, even during recessions.

The bureau estimates that, even in a month where total employment seems hardly to have changed, on average about 300,000 people leave employment and about the same number move into employment.

It’s the net fall in employment of about 600,000 that matters. Why then did unemployment rise by only about 100,000? Because part of the definition of being unemployed is that you must be actively looking for job. Since we were in lockdown, 500,000 of these people didn’t start looking for another job, and so were classed as “not in the labour force”. As soon as they do start looking, they’ll be unemployed.

People make too much of the rule that an hour’s work means you’re not unemployed. Only 2.5 per cent of all those employed in March worked for only one to five hours a week. It’s true, however, that the international definition of unemployment is too narrow, especially in a world where one-third of our jobs are part-time.

This is why the bureau always calculates the rate of under-employment – people who have (mainly) part-time jobs, but would prefer to be working more hours than they’re able to, maybe even full-time hours.

The coronacession has meant many workers are having their hours cut. The number of underemployed people jumped by 100,000 to 800,000, taking the underemployed proportion of the labour force from 8.8 per cent to 13.7 per cent.

Delving into the figures, about 55 per cent of the 600,000 jobs lost in April were held by women, even though women accounted for only 47 per cent of the workforce. Almost two-thirds of the jobs lost were part-time.

Employment of people aged 15 to 24 fell by about 11 per cent, compared with a fall of 3 per cent for prime-aged workers (aged 25 to 54). Unemployment is a much bigger problem for the young, as is underemployment.

While your head’s still spinning, one last puzzle. Being counted as unemployed by the bureau is not the same thing as being eligible to receive unemployment benefits - the “JobSeeker” payment - from Centrelink.

Some people counted as unemployed aren’t eligible for the dole (often because their spouse’s income is too high), whereas some people eligible for the dole aren’t counted as unemployed (because they’re allowed to work a few hours a week before the dole cuts out).

Right now, however (and partly thanks to a temporary increase in how much your spouse may earn), there are 800,000 people counted as unemployed, but twice as many – 1.6 million – getting the JobSeeker payment.
Read more >>

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Hard lessons on how recessions work and why we hate them

Forgive me for boasting about how old I am, but this coronacession – aka the Great Lockdown – will be the fourth severe recession of my career as an economic journalist. That makes recessions my special subject, though I’ve not had much call to talk about them for almost 30 years.

I was too young to remember much of Bob Menzies’ Credit Squeeze, which came within a whisker of tossing him out of office in 1961. But I was established in journalism before I saw the recession of the mid-1970s add the last nail to the coffin of the Whitlam government.

Malcolm Fraser’s prime ministership was cut short by the recession of the early 1980s. Bob Hawke’s successor, Paul Keating, should have been dispensed with at the 1993 election after the recession of the early 1990s, but was saved by our inordinate fear of Dr John Hewson’s proposed goods and services tax. By the next election in 1996, however, voters were on their verandahs with baseball bats waiting for Keating.

So, lesson No. 1: governments that preside over recessions usually get the blame for them. Lesson No. 2: in Australia, recessions happen roughly every seven years – or so I imagined at the time.

When the financial crisis of 2008 failed to sweep us into the world’s Great Recession, I was denied what I fondly assumed would be the biggest recession of my career. Why? Because Kevin Rudd did exactly what his econocrats told him to – and it worked.

In truth, we did have a recession, but one too small to remember. Another truth: more than a decade later, our economy had still not got back fully to normal and was in a weak state when the virus hit us some weeks ago.

In the decades since our last experience of severe recession, silly people in the financial markets and the media have given us the impression that a recession consists of real gross domestic product falling for two quarters in succession.

If you haven’t already, you’ll soon realise what nonsense that is. Lesson No. 3: the defining, terrible characteristic of recessions is soaring unemployment. That’s what makes people fear them so much. “What if I lost my job? How would I pay the mortgage? What about my kids? I’ve got one just finishing uni. Oh, what an appalling stuff-up. Those politicians are hopeless.”

Recessions inflict great harm on those who lose their jobs or their businesses. They make people terribly anxious. They heighten money worries and fights between spouses. They kill off any optimism about the future, leaving the public depressed and surly for month after month. They bark at every economist.

Lesson No. 4: unemployment shoots up, but crawls back down. I remember how much fuss there was when the number on unemployment benefits hit a million under the Hawke government. Last week Scott Morrison announced that, in just a few weeks, the number of people on the JobSeeker allowance (the latest in a long list of bureaucratic euphemisms for the dole) had topped 1.3 million – with a further 300,000 applications to be processed.

After the Hawke-Keating recession (the one we didn’t really have to have), it took almost 14 years for the rate of unemployment to get back down to the 5.9 per cent it was in November 1989.

And research by Professor Bob Gregory, of the Australian National University, suggests that people who’ve been unable to find a job for two years are unlikely to find one again. In recessions past, governments have hidden away some of these people by putting them on the disability pension.

In this recession, the new JobKeeper payment – a worthy measure – is helping to understate the number of workers counted as unemployed.

Lesson No. 5: though economic journalists make much of unemployment statistics, what brings the reality of high unemployment home to the public is TV footage of ashen-faced workers streaming out of factory gates after being laid off.

What did it this time was footage of all those young people queuing up the street and around the corner from Centrelink. Lesson No. 6: this recession, like all of them, will hit the young hardest, particularly those leaving the education system to start working. As part of this, the low-skilled are always hit harder.

What’s different this time – due to the recession’s unique cause: the government hitting the economy on the head with a hammer – is that job losses are so heavily concentrated in a few sectors: tourism and hospitality, arts and entertainment, and universities.

My final lesson is that public attitudes towards the unemployed are cyclical. Between recessions, many people see them as too lazy to work. Come the next recession, however, and we ooze sympathy. We know people who’ve lost their jobs and we’re hoping neither we nor our kids will be joining them.

So, give the jobless a hard time with pettifogging officiousness, robo-debt, payment by card not cash, Work for the Dole, drug testing, reverting to $40 a day? No, wouldn’t dream of it. Not if you’re hoping to be re-elected.
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Saturday, February 23, 2019

We've had plenty of new jobs - for the young, not so much

You can be sure Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg will be boasting about this week’s job figures, which show the jobs market remaining unusually strong. But their critics know not to believe the numbers.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ figures for January show the seasonally adjusted rate of unemployment steady at 5 per cent – the lowest it has been since the start of the decade. The more reliable “trend” (smoothed) estimate is little different at 5.1 per cent.

Sticking with the trend figures, employment has increased by more than 295,000 people over the past year. That’s a rise of 2.4 per cent – a lot bigger than the average annual growth rate over the past 20 years of 2 per cent.

Almost three-quarters of those extra jobs were full-time. Full-time employment has been growing particularly strongly in the past few years.

Another good indicator of how well the economy is going at providing jobs for those who want to work is the employment ratio – the proportion of everyone in the population aged 15 and over who has a job. It’s steady at 62.4 per cent, the highest it’s been.

Just during January, employment increased by 24,900 to reach 12.7 million. That’s an increase of 0.2 per cent, above the monthly average growth rate over the past 20 years of 0.16 per cent.

But don’t get the idea this means all of us stayed in our jobs while another 24,900 joined us. That’s just the net increase. There was a lot more coming and going than that. Indeed, the bureau informs us that, each month, about 300,000 people leave employment and about 300,000 enter it.

Looking at that strong performance over the past couple of years, what’s not to like? With a federal election coming up, why shouldn’t Morrison and Frydenberg boast about the great job they’ve done on jobs?

Well, a lot of their critics would be happy to tell you. They know the official unemployment figures understate the true extent of joblessness.

Did you realise, for instance, that the bureau counts you as employed even if you’ve worked for as little as one hour a week?

This means that, as well as the 680,000 people counted as being unemployed, there are another 1.1 million people who are under-employed – those who have a part-time job, but want to work more hours a week than they are.

Those 1.1 million represent 8.3 per cent of the “labour force” (all those with jobs or looking for jobs). Add that 8.3 per cent to the official unemployment rate and you get a total “labour under-utilisation rate” of 13.3 per cent.

This is down from 14 per cent a year ago, with under-employment accounting for just 0.2 percentage points of the fall and unemployment accounting for the rest.

So the under-employment rate, which rose in the years after the global financial crisis, has fallen since its peak of 8.8 per cent in early 2017, but much more slowly than the fall in unemployment.

That’s the standard critique of the official story: the “true” extent of joblessness is far higher than the official unemployment rate tells us, and when you take account of widespread under-employment you see also that the rate of improvement has been a lot smaller.

What are we to make of this criticism? Well, it’s correct factually, but when you look deeper you see it goes to the other extreme of overstating the extent of the problem.

Take, for instance, the oft-repeated news that people are counted as unemployed if they work for as little as an hour a week. That’s true, but how many people do work as little as an hour?

Answer: almost no one. This week the bureau issued a special note about this matter. It says that only about 14,500 people do, out of total workforce of 12.7 million – that is, 0.1 per cent. (If you think 14,500 people is a lot, you don't realise how big our economy is.)

Make it people working up to three hours a week and you’re still only up to 100,400 people, or 0.8 per cent. In fact, about 97 per cent of workers usually work seven hours or more a week. That’s at least one full shift a week.

The point is that you have to draw the dividing line between unemployed and employed somewhere, and by adhering to the longstanding international convention of drawing it at an hour a week, we are not significantly overstating the position.

Many people assume the only good job is one that’s full-time. Wrong. Many students, parents and semi-retired people are perfectly happy working only part-time.

Further, many people assume that every part-time worker who says they’d like to work more hours is someone who’d rather have a full-time job if only they could find one. That’s wrong, too. Though many would indeed prefer a full-time job, many part-timers want to stay part-time, but wouldn’t mind working a few extra hours.

So when you take the unemployment rate (people with no job) and simply add the under-employment rate of 8.3 per cent on to it, you’re exaggerating the number of people working significantly fewer hours than they want to.

But let’s take a closer look at under-employment. As the bureau has explained, it is concentrated among the young. More than a third of the under-employed are aged 15 to 24. About 18 per cent of all workers in this age group are under-employed.

It seems clear that education-leavers have borne more than their fair share of the pain during the period of below-par growth since the global financial crisis in 2008. Many people leaving university have had to settle for a part-time job and, until quite recently, they’ve taken more months to make it into full-time employment.

The latest figures from the universities show their new graduates are now taking less time to find a decent job than they were.

But, in any case, caring about the troubles of young people is deeply unfashionable. It’s the well-off elderly we should be worrying about.
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Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Young people bearing the brunt of a weak economy

Without wanting to be branded a class traitor, I have to admit that we Baby Boomers have enjoyed a rails-run in the race of life.

Most of us had little trouble getting ourselves set up in the jobs market and then the housing market. I look at today’s bright and bushy-tailed youngsters, just starting out in both markets, and don’t envy them one bit (except, of course, their instinctive understanding of the right place to click on a webpage).

(Just to protect my back: those Baby Boomers who were conscripted, or ended up in Vietnam, didn’t have it easy. Nor should those who’ve come after us imagine all Baby Boomers are rolling in it, have never been unemployed, never paid uni fees nor suffered bad luck.)

In the decade since the global financial crisis and the recession we supposedly didn’t have, the supply of people wanting to work has been stronger than employers’ demand for work to be done.

That’s true even though the rate of unemployment never got very high and isn’t all that high today. But a study by Zoya Dhillon and Natasha Cassidy, of the Reserve Bank, confirms what I’ve long suspected: the reason the position overall hasn’t looked so bad is the brunt of the weakness in employers’ demand for labour has been borne by young people leaving school and university.

Whatever you’ve heard in the media, not a lot of workers have been laid off since the shock in September 2008. Employer behaviour has changed, the study confirms. Firms have been less inclined to get rid of people and more inclined to reduce the total amount of hours they’re paying for.

This has become easier for them to do because of their greater ability to employ people on a part-time or casual basis.

On balance, and from an economy-wide perspective, this change of behaviour is an improvement, a shift to a lesser evil. It’s a terrible blow to suddenly lose your job. Better to have some paid work than none.

But the price for this marginal improvement has been paid mainly by the young. Established workers have tended to keep their jobs, but employers haven’t recruited as many people at entry-level. And more of the jobs they’ve offered young people have been part-time.

A new twist on last in, first out.

The result is that education-leavers have had greater trouble – and suffered longer delays – in finding a full-time job suited to their education.

“Over the past decade,” the study says, “increases in the unemployment and underemployment rates for younger people have been twice as large as for the overall labour market. The share of 20 to 24 year-olds that have become disengaged from either study or work has also increased.”

“Younger people” means those aged 15 to 24, though remember that those aged 15 to 19 will mainly be still at school, while many of those aged 20 to 24 will be at university or TAFE.

Some younger people have part-time jobs while still at school, and most higher education students in full-time study also work part-time.

Nothing new or worrying about that. But “in recent years there has been a pronounced increase in the share of 20 to 24 year-olds working part-time who are not studying full-time”.

You’ve heard, no doubt, that while the official unemployment rate has been edging down, the rate of underemployment – people working part-time who want to work more hours – has been edging up (until lately, as we’ll see).

What’s less well known is that underemployment is dominated by younger workers, and it’s they who’ve done most to drive the rate up over recent years. A lot of this would be people finishing uni but having trouble finding a full-time job and taking a part-time job while they keep searching.

In the mid-1990s, about 80 per cent of all bachelor-degree graduates found a full-time job within four months of graduating. By last year, that had fallen to just over 70 per cent – about the same as it got down to during our last severe recession in the early 1990s.

Remember, it’s like a traffic jam. It takes a lot longer than it should, but you do get through eventually.

The most worrying thing is the “NEET rate” – the proportion of younger people who are “not in education, employment or training”. The NEET rate has fallen over the decades as we’ve done better at getting more of our young people into education and training.

But the rate for 20 to 24 year-olds has increased in recent years and is back to where it was in 2005.

The study says prolonged spells of disengagement from the labour market are known to have lasting ill-effects. “Poor labour market outcomes early on not only affect an individual’s future employability, but also have persistent negative effects on lifetime earnings.”

All this says the difficulties younger people are encountering in finding decent full-time jobs are better explained by the economy’s prolonged period of below-par growth since the financial crisis than by the sexier and more frightening explanation that it’s caused by the rise of the “gig economy”.

Which brings me to a little good news. The trend rate of underemployment for all ages has fallen a little to 8.4 per cent over the past year. And the rate of unemployment for younger people has fallen from 12.4 per cent to 11.6 per cent in just the past four months.
Read more >>

Saturday, August 26, 2017

In truth there's no apprenticeship 'crisis'

If we're to believe what we're told, Australia's apprenticeship system is in crisis, with plunging numbers following cuts in government support.

In last year's federal election campaign, Bill Shorten claimed the number of people "in training for an apprenticeship" – note that tricky wording – was "now at its lowest level since 2001".

Spending cuts by the Abbott-Turnbull government had "seen apprentice numbers fall by more than 120,000 since the 2013 election".

In May this year, Karen Andrews, Assistant Minister for Vocational Education and Skills in the Turnbull government, said the objective of a new government fund was to "restore the number [of apprenticeships] to 2012 levels, when Labor's withdrawal of employer incentives contributed to a massive decline".

Earlier this year, a joint statement by the three biggest business lobby groups claimed that apprenticeships had declined by 45 per cent since June 2012 and urged the Turnbull government to "take urgent action to avert an imminent crisis in our apprenticeship system".

Not to be outdone, the ACTU claimed in last year's election campaign that the Coalition had "ripped funding out of apprenticeship programs", resulting in a "catastrophic drop in the number of apprentices learning their trade".

When you remember the almighty hash that federal and state governments of both colours have made of their efforts to smarten up TAFE colleges by making vocational education and training "contestable" by for-profit training providers, it's not hard to believe that, between them, the former Labor and present Coalition federal governments have stuffed up apprenticeships.

Fortunately, however, you don't have to believe it. It isn't true. For their own reasons, the people I've quoted – Labor and Liberal, employers and unions – are seeking to mislead us about the state of the apprenticeship system.

This is clear from a report published this week by the highly regarded higher education expert Professor Peter Noonan, and Sarah Pilcher, of the Mitchell Institute at Victoria University.

Let me ask: What do you understand the word "apprenticeship" to mean? Do you take it to mean the system that's existed for decades where young people work in trades such as carpentry, plumbing, electrical, commercial cooking and hairdressing, and undertake about four years of training before becoming qualified tradespeople?

Now try this: Have you heard of the "traineeships" that the Hawke government invented in 1985 to reduce youth unemployment by providing job and training opportunities for young people in service sector occupations not covered by traditional apprenticeships?

They typically last for only a year or less, and are common in retail and hospitality, admin, childcare and aged care.

Get this: when all those people I quoted spoke of the "apprenticeship system", what they were actually referring to was those short-term traineeships.

There's been a huge fall in the number of traineeships since 2012, because the Gillard government decided to crack down on massive rorting by employers and training providers of changes in the traineeship system made by the Howard government.

There has been a modest fall in the number of traditional apprenticeships since 2012, but this is despite the absence of any change in the full funding of traditional apprenticeships.

No one would understand the distinction between apprenticeships and traineeships better that Shorten, the minister responsible, the employer groups and the ACTU.

None of them would fail to realise that the public worries a lot more about trade apprenticeships than about short-term service sector traineeships.

So when they chose to depict a crackdown on employer rorting of traineeships as a crisis in the apprenticeship system, they knew full well they were misleading us.

But how did they think they could get away with such deceit? That no Peter Noonan would blow the whistle on them?

Here's the bit you'll have trouble believing. It sounds like it's straight out of Utopia.

They thought they'd get away with it because, some years ago, some genius in the federal government decided to add the traineeship figures to the apprenticeship figures and call them all apprenticeships.

You know, add oranges to apples and call them all apples. Good one.

So far has that bureaucratic obfuscation gone, that actual figures for apprenticeships and traineeships have disappeared.

You can, however, divide the so-called apprenticeships between trade apprenticeships (the real ones) and non-trade "apprenticeships" (actually traineeships).

The number of traineeships has long been a lot greater than the number of apprenticeships, which tend to vary with the strength of the economy. Even so, commencements have increased in some categories: carpenters, plumbers and electricians.

But the number of traineeship commencements ballooned after 1998, when the Howard government took a scheme aimed at encouraging employers to hire more young people, and made subsidies available for training of existing employees, of any age.

The report says registered training organisations, apprenticeship centres and brokers "aggressively marketed" these existing-worker traineeships.

"A business model emerged whereby employers would share the incentives with registered training organisations, who then delivered training, too often of questionable duration and quality," the report finds.

By 2012, the peak year before the Gillard government's restrictions took effect, 44 per cent of all traineeship commencements were for existing workers. About 18 per cent of all "trainees" were aged 45 or older.

The Howard government also decided in 1998 to make employer incentives available for part-time traineeships and apprenticeships.

"This decision . . . also created a market in Commonwealth employer subsidies, through which firms could shift their part-time and casual youth workforces (including full-time school and university students) into part-time traineeships," the report says.

"This had a dual benefit for employers – they were able to pay trainees the national training wage (below the relevant award) while also claiming employer subsidies, with training provided fully on the job.

"Major retail firms and franchises, in particular in the fast food industries, took full advantage of these incentives."

Now why do I find that easy to believe?
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Saturday, August 19, 2017

Seeking the truth about the extent of unemployment

So, the Australian Bureau of Statistics told us this week, the rate of unemployment fell a tick to 5.6 per cent in July. Trouble is, most people know the official unemployment rate understates the extent of the problem.

What many people don't know, however, is that when you take the rate of unemployment and add the rate of under-employment, which in May took us up to 14.5 per cent, you overstate the extent of the problem.

It's well known by now that the official definition of unemployment is a very narrow one because you only have to do one hour's work in a week to be classed as employed.

A lot of people also know – or think they know - that this amazing definition was introduced by the government some years ago to stop the figures looking so bad.

Labor voters know it was a Coalition government that fudged the figures; Liberal voters know the villain was a Labor government.

Sorry, this is an urban myth. It is just not true. The bureau would never allow any bunch of politicians to fiddle with the definitions it uses.

As it has explained many times, the bureau uses internationally agreed standards to define unemployment, which are set by the International Labour Organisation, part of the United Nations.

They had to draw the dividing line between unemployed and employed somewhere, and they chose one hour – a choice that was easier to make in the days when almost all the jobs were full-time.

Even today, there'd be very few people actually working just an hour or two a week. Most would work at least one shift of seven or eight hours.

Even so, there's no denying that such a narrow definition understates the extent of joblessness. This is why the bureau also publishes a measure of underemployment.

The underemployed consist of all those people who are working part-time – defined as less than 35 hours a week – but would prefer to be working more hours.

When you take the rate of underemployment and add it to the rate of unemployment (with both unemployment and underemployment expressed as proportions of the labour force) you get what the bureau calls the "labour underutilisation rate", which we can think of as a broader measure of unemployment.

If you look over the years, the rate of unemployment tends to go higher and lower in line with the downs and ups in the business cycle.

You can also see the business cycle reflected in the rate of underemployment, but it has a much clearer underlying upward trend. It was 2.6 per cent in 1978, but 8.3 per cent in November 2015 and 8.8 per cent this May.

Until early 2003, the unemployment rate was higher than the underemployment rate, but since then the underemployment rate has been higher, with a growing gap.

Between February 2015 and this May, the unemployment rate fell by 0.5 percentage points, whereas the underemployment rate rose by 0.3 points.

The underemployment rate is a lot higher for females, 11 per cent, than for males, 6.9 per cent.

It's also greatest among people in lower-skilled occupations and lowest among people in higher-skilled occupations. (Uni students please note.)

Now get this: although workers of all ages suffer underemployment, it's much more a problem for the young. More than a third of the underemployed are aged 15 to 24, and their rate is 18.5 per cent.

But why has the trend rate of underemployment been rising steadily since the late 1970s?

Since underemployment is an affliction of part-time workers, the steady rise in part-time employment over that time – so that it now accounts for about a third of all jobs – does much to explain why there's more part-timers who happen to be saying they'd prefer to be working more hours.

Professor Jeff Borland, of the University of Melbourne, adds that "younger workers appear to have experienced the largest increase in underemployment because they have had the largest growth in part-time employment".

He reminds us that more young people have part-time work because more of them are in full-time education and needing a part-time job.

But here's my punchline: although the official unemployment rate understates the size of the problem, just adding the underemployment rate goes to the other extreme of exaggerating it.

Why? Because it adds apples to oranges. We worry most about underemployment because we assume it involves people who need full-time jobs but have had to settle for part-time.

It does. But it also includes people who are happy to stay part-time but, even so, would prefer to work an extra shift or maybe just a few more hours.

It doesn't make sense to add people with such a small problem to people with the much bigger problem of needing a full-time job but not being able to find one, as though they were similar.

Remember, too, that almost a third of the people included in the official unemployment rate are looking only for part-time work.

This is why, if you search very deep on the bureau's website (clue: catalogue no. 6291.0.55.003, table 23b) you find that, as well as just counting heads, it also does a more accurate measure of underemployment that counts the hours people are looking for – meaning part-timers needing a full-time job count for a lot more than those just wanting a few more hours.

This "volume" measure shows that, in May, the underemployment rate was 3.2 per cent of all the potential hours the whole labour force could work, and the unemployment rate was 4.3 per cent, giving an hours-based measure of labour underutilisation of 7.5 per cent.

Which is closer to the truth of the matter.
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Saturday, December 17, 2016

What's happening in the labour market

Oh, no! They say the Bureau of Statistics' jobs figures for November are good because they show employment growing by 39,000, with all those jobs full-time. But then they say the unemployment rate increased a click to 5.7 per cent. Huh?

It is possible to make sense of what's happening in the labour market, but only if you follow a few rules.

For a start, it's never possible to make sense of the monthly figures if you focus on the change from last month because they're subject to sampling and other errors and keep bouncing around.

You make it doubly hard if you defy the bureau's advice and focus on its "seasonally adjusted" estimates rather than its "trend" (smoothed) estimates.

Also, employment and unemployment aren't opposite sides of the same coin. There's a third possibility: neither employed nor unemployed, because you don't have a job and aren't looking for one. The statisticians call this "not [participating] in the labour force".

So it's perfectly possible for both employment and unemployment to increase at the same time - if, say, some people are leaving the unemployed because they've found a job, while others are adding to the unemployed by joining the labour force to look for work.

But let's stick to the trend figures and step back for a longer view, looking at the 12 months to November.

The figures show total employment grew by 87,000 and the rate of unemployment fell 0.3 percentage points to 5.6 per cent.

If you think that sounds good, sorry. Over the same period, the proportion of working-age people participating in the labour force, either by having a job or looking for one, fell by 0.6 percentage points to 64.5 per cent.

About 0.25 percentage points of that fall would have been caused by the ageing of the population, but the rest was probably caused by "discouraged jobseekers" ceasing to be classed as unemployed because they gave up looking for work.

The bureau points out that growth in total employment of 87,000 is an annual increase of only 0.7 per cent, which is less than half the average growth rate over the past 20 years of 1.8 per cent.

Then, when you delve into the employment story you find that while part-time employment grew by 138,000, full-time employment actually fell by 51,000.

It's not so surprising that the jobs market isn't doing as well as our reasonable rate of growth in gross domestic product would lead us to expect, because a lot of the output growth is coming from increased production of minerals and energy, which involves employing very few extra miners.

But why are those jobs we are creating more likely to be part-time? The Reserve Bank investigated this question in last month's quarterly statement on monetary policy.

It says much of the recent swing from the creation of full-time jobs to the creation of part-time jobs is explained by the economy's return to non-mining led growth since the end of the mining construction boom.

The Reserve divides the economy into three broad sectors. First, the goods-related sector: agriculture, mining, manufacturing, construction, utilities and distribution (transport, postal and warehousing, and wholesale and retail trade).

Second, the business services sector: finance and insurance, administration and support, media and telecommunications, professional scientific and technical, and rental, hiring and real estate.

Third, the household services sector: health and aged care, education, accommodation and food, and arts and recreation.

"Since 2013," the Reserve says, "employment growth has been strongest in the household services sector, where the share of part-time employment is relatively high at about 45 per cent."

Over this period, the share of part-time employment in the business services sector and the goods-related sector has also increased but, at about 25 per cent, it remains much lower than for the household services sector.

Employment growth has been weakest in the goods-related sector, partly reflecting the loss of jobs as mining construction projects come to an end and the ongoing decline in manufacturing employment.

So far we've said that, since 2013, some sectors of the economy have growth faster than others, with the sector that's grown fastest also being the one that's always had the biggest proportion of part-time jobs.

But there's also been a shift to part-time employment within each of the sectors. The Reserve says this fits with what businesses are telling it in its "liaison" interviews, that they've been hesitant to employ full-time workers until they see evidence that increased demand for their output is likely to be sustained.

Of course, the share of part-time employment in total employment has been increasing steadily since the mid-1960s. Then, it was 10 per cent; today it's about a third.

Being able to employ people for those times in the week when you need them - rather than having full-timers with little to do for much of the week - has allowed firms to increase the efficiency with which they use labour.

So there's been growing employer demand for part-time workers. At the same time, however, there's been growing willingness among employees to supply their labour on a part-time basis.

The obvious examples are full-time students, parents of very young children and, these days, older workers seeking semi-retirement.

This makes it wrong to think that part-time jobs are inferior to full-time jobs, that everyone with a part-time job really wants a full-time job (there aren't many for whom that's true) or that all part-time jobs are casual rather than permanent.

What is true, however, is that with the rise in part-time employment has gone a rise in under-employment - essentially, people with part-time jobs who'd prefer to be working more hours.

Since February 1990, under-employment's risen from 4 per cent to 8.5 per cent today, though it's been steady for the past two years.

On the downside of the resources boom, employment growth isn't as strong as we'd like it to be.
Read more >>

Monday, September 12, 2016

Our youth jobs report card: what's up with you people?

It's surprising how many of our politicians, economists and business people fail to see that our preference for looking after high-achieving young people and not worrying too much about the stragglers is a recipe for much more than social injustice and unfulfilled lives.

The earlier we identify and help kids at risk of doing poorly in education, training and employment, the more we help the community as well as the kids.

It's a social and economic investment. Neglect it and we lose much more later, as people spend more of their life on benefits and add little to the productivity of our workforce.

On the face of it, a report card on our performance, Investing in Youth: Australia – to be released by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development at a forum hosted by the Brotherhood of St Laurence in Melbourne on Monday – gives us a pass.

Our education system "performs well overall, and school completion rates have been rising in recent years".

The labour market situation of youth in Australia is "quite favourable by international standards". Our youth unemployment rate is [a bit] "below the OECD average".

But this is not so terrific when you remember that "Australia was hit much less heavily by the Great Recession than most other countries".

"After continuous decline in youth unemployment rates since the early 1990s, rates have started rising again, while youth employment has fallen."

But the report focuses not on youth unemployment, but on NEETs – the share of youth (people aged 15 to 29) who are "not in employment, education or training". And, at 11.8 per cent, the share of NEETs was higher in 2015 than it was before the global financial crisis in 2008.

That's well over half a million young Australians out of education and work. About a third of those are looking for work, but the other two-thirds aren't.

The first factor driving the high proportion of NEETs is low educational attainment. Quelle surprise.

Youth with, at best, a year 10 certificate, account for more than a third of the NEETs. And their risk of being in that state is three times as high as for those with tertiary education.

Worse, "many NEETs lack foundational skills (numeracy and literacy) and non-cognitive skills, which are important prerequisites for labour market success," the report finds.

But there's hope if we bother helping. "Recent research demonstrates, however, that non-cognitive skills, like cognitive skills, remain malleable for young people through special interventions."

Get this: the risk of being NEET is 50 per cent higher for women, and women account for 60 per cent of all NEETs.

So the biggest single explanation of why so many NEETs aren't looking for work is that many of them are young mothers with a child below the age of four. And don't assume they're all sole parents on welfare.

The report adds that NEET rates are substantially higher among Indigenous youth, who represent 3 per cent of the youth population, but 10 per cent of all NEETs.

And the likelihood of being NEET is substantially higher for youth with disabilities.

In case you're tempted by visions of all those lazy loafers out surfing, or with their feet up watching daytime television, the report says NEETs "tend to exhibit higher rates of psychological stress and lower levels of life satisfaction" than other youth.

In its own ever-so-polite way, the report notes our less-than-stellar performance. The completion rate for vocational and educational training certificates and apprenticeships "remains low by international standards".

That's one way to acknowledge the awful stuff-up we've made of VET.

Australia has a wonderful, very flexible, market-based network of employment service providers that "cover, however, only about 60 per cent of NEETs, leaving around 200,000 youth unserviced". Oh.

"Young jobseekers' participation in training programs increased over the last years, but this trend came to a halt with the recent expansion of Work for the Dole", we're told.

"Given strong evidence on positive employment effects of training, including for disadvantaged jobseekers, Australia should continue promoting training program participation as an effective way of moving young jobseekers into stable employment."

Translation: what's up with you people?

The report praises our Youth Connections program and its effectiveness in improving educational attainment for youth at risk of dropping out of school – before noting it was phased out in 2014.

"The recent tightening of eligibility criteria for unemployment benefits may create additional incentives to actively look for work, but it also bears the risk of pushing the most disadvantaged youth into inactivity and possibly poverty," we're told.

Translation: you mean Aussie bastards.
Read more >>

Saturday, April 30, 2016

The prospect for workers is brighter than many think

A lot of people are convinced it's just going to get worse and worse for workers in coming years. A lot of oldies think that and, unfortunately, too many youngsters believe them.

Many older people worry that, with the decline of manufacturing in Australia, and the end of the mining boom as well, they just can't see where the jobs will come from.

Young people, on the other hand, believe jobs are getting ever harder to find and, when you do find one, it's likely to be pretty scrappy: casual, part-time, short-term.

What's true is that young people have borne the brunt of the weak economic and hence employment growth since the financial crisis in 2008.

It's taking them longer to find entry-level full-time jobs than it used to and, in the meantime, they've had to get by with casual jobs. More employers have been willing to exploit them by asking them to do unpaid internships.

What's not true is that there's been continuing growth in insecure forms of employment. The proportions of such jobs haven't been increasing.

At a time of "transition" and uncertainty, it's always easy to err on the gloomy side. When you do, be sure the media will broadcast your bad vibes to the world.

But it's not hard to see plausible reasons why things could get better for workers, not worse. And when the ANZ Bank's chief economist unit and the Australian Institute for Business and Economics, at the University of Queensland, peered into the future and ran their best guesses through a model of the economy, that's just what they found.

Everyone loves to dwell on the decline in manufacturing, and the pathetic number of lasting jobs in mining, but few people get excited by the truth that almost all the additional jobs we've created in the past 40 years have been in the services sector.

Nor that most of these jobs have been cleaner, safer, more highly skilled and more rewarding – intellectually as well as monetarily – than most of the jobs no longer being created in manufacturing, farming and mining.

The study makes the highly plausible assumption that this longstanding trend will continue. "Declining material intensity has been observed in all [developed] countries, in part because wealthier consumers buy 'experiences' once their primary material needs are met," it says.

The ageing of the population is almost invariably portrayed as a bad thing, but the study points to a widely ignored way in which it's good news for the younger generation.

With a higher proportion of the population retired (and thus adding to the demand for labour but not to its supply) but low fertility meaning a lower rate of young people entering the workforce from education, demand for the services of young workers will increase.

Here's a tip: employers are chancers​. If they think they can get away with screwing workers (because there are more than enough available) they will. That's what's been happening lately.

But if they don't think they can get away with it (because workers have plenty of other bosses who'd like their services), they don't. And if it gets to the point where bosses have to start sucking up to workers to attract them and hold them, they will.

The study puts it more politely. By their nature, service industries rely less on machines and more on people, particularly highly-skilled workers. So if the services sector's share of the economy continues to grow "this could prove challenging for Australian businesses given our ageing population and changing workforce composition".

A third factor the gloom-mongers neglect is that our continuing move to the "knowledge economy" requires a better-educated, more highly-qualified workforce.

Today, more than half the population has completed the last year of schooling and gained at least a post-school certificate. That's more than twice what it was in 1981.

Since the oldest Australians have the lowest levels of educational attainment, the proportion of people with post-school qualifications could exceed 70 per cent by 2030.

Even so, the study predicts that "the fight to retain skilled workers will intensify", implying that, though the supply of qualified workers will grow, the demand for their services will grow faster.

In such circumstances, employers will be trying to bind their skilled workers to them, not cast them adrift with insecure employment contracts.

If we foresee further growth in the share of the economy accounted for by labour-intensive service industries, employing better qualified and higher-paid workers – over whose bodies employers are fighting – labour's share of national income should rise.

If so, "some of the consequences of a falling labour share, such as growing income inequality, may begin to unwind as well", the study says.

A final factor to remember is that our exports of services are likely to keep growing as Asia's middle class gets bigger and more prosperous.

At present, the goods sector of the economy (agriculture, mining, manufacturing and construction) accounts for 28 per cent of total employment, while the services sector accounts for 72 per cent. The study predicts that, over the next 15 years, the services share will increase by 5 percentage points.

It finds that the industries with the most intensive demand for labour are also those with the strongest growth prospects.

The strongest growing service industries are likely to be healthcare (fed by demand for new medical technologies as well as ageing), education (growing demand for qualifications) and professional services.

These industries are projected to grow by at least 5 per cent a year, on average, over the next 15 years. Demand for labour across the economy is projected to grow by an average of a solid 1.6 per cent a year.

No one – certainly, no economist – knows what the future holds. But don't be led into assuming the only things that could happen are bad.
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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Oldies screw young in the labour market

If you're ever tempted to doubt that the world is run by older people who organise things to suit themselves and don't worry about any blowback on the young, consider how commonly employers resort to the practice of "natural attrition".

It's something businesses do when times are tough. They could lay off workers, but they choose a more considerate path: just stop hiring any new people, including replacing people who leave, and eventually get your numbers down to where you need them.

And all the oldies breathe a sigh of relief. Problem solved in the nicest possible way.

Except for one little thing: the oldies have just passed the buck to some unknown bunch of young people. What causes natural attrition to get quick results is the decision to abandon the annual intake of young people at the entry level.

For youngsters there's a form of bad luck that isn't widely recognised by those of us already ensconced in the workforce: to have the misfortune to be leaving school or university at a time when the economy has turned down and few employers are taking on recruits.

Kids complete their education bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, only to discover the world of work doesn't want them. It might take them a year, even 18 months, to get a proper, full-time job. That can be terribly dispiriting.

It's common at such times for young people to be caught in a trap where they can't get a job because they lack experience, but they lack experience because they can't get a job.

It's an appalling thing for the rising generation to get off on such a wrong foot. It can take years to recover, if you ever do.

At the time of the global financial crisis in late 2008 and 2009, we were all hugely relieved when, as it turned out, we escaped serious recession. The official rate of unemployment rose from 4 per cent to just 5.8 per cent before falling back.

We were all off the hook. Well, only the oldies. The truth is there was a sharp downturn and employers did react by going into natural-attrition mode, with some even moving briefly to four-day weeks.

Great. What few people noticed was that much of the burden of adjustment was shucked off on to that year's crop of education leavers. How much concern for their welfare? Not a lot.

We do hear a lot about the trouble some older people find in regaining employment should they lose their jobs. It's a genuine problem and one we should care about.

But the unemployment problems of the old seem to attract a lot more public attention – and sympathy – than the similar problems of the young.

Research by the Brotherhood of St Laurence using HILDA – the household income and labour dynamics in Australia survey – finds those aged 55 and over account for just 8 per cent of the unemployed, whereas those aged under 25 make up more than 40 per cent.

So unemployment is concentrated among the young. And, historically, the sad truth is it's concentrated among the less educated and less skilled.

In the modern technologically driven workforce, there are many fewer jobs for people who quit school early and for those who don't acquire post-school trade or tertiary qualifications. What unskilled jobs remain tend to be casual and occupied by university students or mothers.

In 2008, according to the Brotherhood's figures, 45 per cent of the unemployed had failed to complete year 12, with another 20 per cent having gone no further than year 12. That's almost two-thirds.

People with trade qualifications made up just 16 per cent of total unemployment, with those with university qualifications accounting for an unusually high 19 per cent.

In more recent years, unemployment has been rising slowly while, within that, the rate of unemployment among 15 to 24-year-olds has risen more rapidly. Among those teenagers who are either in jobs or actively seeking them, the rate of unemployment earlier this year was 20 per cent.

But now get this: by 2012, according to the HILDA survey, the proportion of the unemployed with uni qualifications had jumped to 25 per cent.

To me, that's easily explained: years of weak growth in the economy are leading many employers to engage in natural attrition, which is limiting job losses among established workers, but making it much harder for university leavers to find work.

Governments can't be blamed for the employment practices of businesses, but they can be held accountable for their punitive treatment of the young unemployed – even if they are reflecting the adult world's lack of sympathy for youthful job seekers. Oldies seem convinced that the young's only problem is that they don't want to work and so need to be starved back to the grindstone.

The dole has been allowed to fall way below the age pension so that it's now less than $260 a week for a single adult. The "youth allowance" is even lower. Now the ever-so-caring Abbott government wants to raise the age of adulthood from 21 to 25 and extend the non-adult waiting period from one week to four weeks.

And that's before we get on to the way successive governments' high immigration policy is allowing employers to neglect the training of young workers.

Why young voters cop this cruddy deal so meekly I don't know.
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Saturday, October 25, 2014

Economic chaos of Whitlam years not all his fault

Gough Whitlam was a giant among men who changed Australia forever - and did it in just three years. No argument. The question is whether the benefits of his many reforms exceeded their considerable economic costs.

The answers we've had this week have veered from one extreme to the other. To Whitlam's legion of adoring fans - many of whom, like many members of his ministry, have never managed to generate much understanding or interest in economics - any economic issues at the time aren't worth remembering.

To his bitter, unforgiving critics - led by former Treasury secretary John Stone - his changes were of dubious benefit, in no way making up for the economic chaos he brought down upon us.

The truth is somewhere in the middle.

To his many social reforms must be added a few of lasting economic benefit: diplomatic and trading relations with China, the Trade Practices Act with its first serious attack on anti-competitive business practices and - the one so many forget - the Industries Assistance Commission, whose efforts over many years led eventually to the end of protection against imports, removed by the next Labor government.

Not all of his many social reforms have survived. The Hawke-Keating government removed remaining vestiges of his non-means-tested age pension and ended the failed experiment with free university education, which did little to raise the proportion of poor kids going to university, but cost a fortune and delivered a windfall to the middle class at the expense of many workers.

The best modern assessment of the Big Man's economic performance comes in the chapter by John O'Mahony, of Deloitte Access Economics, in The Whitlam Legacy, edited by Troy Bramston.

O'Mahony's review of the economic statistics tells part of the story: "The years of the Whitlam government saw the economic growth rate halve, unemployment double and inflation triple".

But that conceals a wild ride. By mid-1975, inflation hit 17.6 per cent and wage rises hit 32.9 per cent. The economy boomed in 1973 and the first half of '74, but then suffered a severe recession.

From an economic perspective, Whitlam did two main things. He hugely increased government spending - and, hence, the size of government - by an amazing 6 percentage points of gross domestic product in just three years.

Some have assumed this led to huge budget deficits. It didn't. Most of the increased spending was covered by massive bracket creep as prices and wages exploded.

Many of Whitlam's new spending programs should have come under his predecessors and would have happened eventually. Some can be defended as adding to the economy's human capital and productive infrastructure, others were no more than a recognition that our private affluence needn't be accompanied by public squalor.

From this distance it's hard to believe that in 1972 large parts of our capital cities were unsewered. That's the kind of backwardness Whitlam inherited.

The Whitlam government's second key economic action was to pile on top of high inflation huge additional costs to employers through equal pay, a fourth week of annual leave, a 17.5 per cent annual leave loading and much else.

Clyde Cameron, Whitlam's minister for labour, simply refused to accept that the cost of labour could possibly influence employers' decisions about how much labour they used.

From today's perspective, there's nothing radical about equal pay or four weeks' leave. But to do it all so quickly and in such an inflationary environment was disastrous.

When the inevitable happened and Treasury and the Reserve Bank jammed on the brakes and precipitated a recession, Labor's rabble of a 27-person cabinet concluded the econocrats had stabbed them in the back, panicked and began reflating like mad.

What Labor's True Believers don't want to accept is that the inexperience, impatience and indiscipline with which the Whitlam government changed Australia forever, and for the better, cost a lot of ordinary workers their jobs. Many would have spent months, even a year or more without employment.

But what the Whitlam haters forget is that Labor had the misfortune to inherit government just as all the developed economies were about to cross a fault-line dividing the postwar Golden Age of automatic growth and full employment from today's world of always high unemployment and obsession with economic stabilisation.

Thirty years of simple Keynesian policies and unceasing intervention in markets were about to bring to the developed world the previously impossible problem of "stagflation" - simultaneous high inflation and high unemployment - that no economist knew how to fix, not even the omniscient and infallible John Stone.

It was 30 years in the making, but it was precipitated by the Americans' use of inflation to pay for the Vietnam war, the consequent breakdown of the postwar Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates, the worldwide rural commodities boom and the first OPEC oil shock, which worsened both inflation and unemployment.

The developed world was plunged into dysfunction. The economics profession took years to figure out what had gone wrong and what policies would restore stability. Money supply targeting was tried and abandoned.

The innocents in the Whitlam government had no idea what had hit them; that all the rules of the economic game had changed. The point is that any government would have emerged from the 1970s with a bad economic record.

Malcolm Fraser had no idea the rules had changed, either. His economic record over the following seven years was equally unimpressive.

It took the rest of the developed world about a decade to get back to low inflation and lower unemployment. It took us about two decades. I blame the Whitlam government's inexperience, impatience and indiscipline for a fair bit of that extra decade.

My strongest feeling is that when the electorate leaves one side of politics in the wilderness for 23 years it's asking for trouble. It's Time to give the others a turn after no more than a decade.
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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.
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