With 52,000 workers missing, no wonder outlook is grim

If you believe the headline seasonally adjusted figures, in August everything in the labour force was falling. Employment fell, unemployment fell - and workforce participation fell, to its lowest level since 2006.

There's no sense in that, so we have to remember that it's just a survey, and focus instead on the trend figures, in which the Bureau of Statistics smooths out the zigs and zags of the seasonally adjusted data. And the trend figures are just as sombre.

In the past three months, the bureau estimates, Australia's working age population has grown by 64,000. But in net terms, just 8000 jobs have been created, and full-time jobs have fallen by 1000. Yet unemployment rose by just 4000.

That leaves 52,000 people unaccounted for. Where did they go? According to the bureau surveys, out of the workforce altogether. Some are studying, or minding the kids, or taking an overseas holiday. Some have retired. But where are the rest of them?

If this was just happening over three months, you wouldn't worry about it. But the bureau says this has been the story of the Australian labour market since the end of 2010: when our workforce participation peaked at 65.9 per cent of all adults aged 15 and over, with a record 62.5 per cent in work.

Since then, the adult population has grown by 386,000, yet in net terms we have added just 36,000 full-time jobs, and 95,000 jobs in all. The unemployment rate has barely moved, because the number of those who say they are looking for work has grown by only 21,000.

But the number of people who say they have no job and are not looking for one has swollen by 270,000. That is, 70 per cent of the growth in our adult population is in people outside the workforce. Either they have given up the search, or don't need to work any more - or the figures are kaput.

Whatever the truth, two things are clear from today's figures:

  • The growth in jobs is almost entirely in one state: Western Australia. In trend terms, the bureau estimates WA has added 51,000 full-time jobs, yet the rest of Australia has lost 13,000. There's been a bit of growth in New South Wales (11,000), Queensland (5000) and the territories, but in that year Victoria has lost 21,500 full-time jobs, South Australia 19,000 (one job in 30) and Tasmania 6700 (one job in 23).
  • The mainstream Australian economy is far weaker than the 3.7 per cent growth rate (unveiled yesterday) implies. As the Reserve Bank has pointed out, at least half our growth is coming from the minersphere - mining investment, and sectors depending on it - which is at best 15 to 20 per cent of the economy.

There are other sectors recording good growth - the demand for healthcare never stops growing, government cuts have yet to hit the bureaucracy, the professions and the finance sector just keep growing - but there are big sectors such as manufacturing and retailing that have been shedding jobs because of the high dollar and high household debt.

Today's figures really don't change the story of the Australian economy. Take out mining, and activity is weak, and at risk of getting weaker as Europe's woes mount to a crisis, federal and state budget cuts start to bite, and the free fall in global iron ore prices puts the brakes on mining investment.

More interest rate cuts will come, but the Reserve Bank will want to time them to have maximum impact. In the meantime, things will stay tough for teenagers seeking full-time jobs, with their unemployment rate stuck at 23.5 per cent.

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