Regional Jobs shows Cairns slightly weaker; Townsville further improved

Today’s ABS regional labour force data for April needs to be looked at through the lens of the Conus Trend to make any real sense.

What the data shows us is Cairns slightly weaker while Townsville continues its trend of improvements (from a low base). The Conus Trend unemployment rate for Cairns now sits at 6.1% (up from 5.9% in March) which remains well below the 6.4% at a State level. Jobs remained virtually unchanged (less than 100 down) while the Trend participation rate eased to 61.6 (from 61.8). Over the course of the past 12 months Trend employment now sits 8,000 higher with annual employment growth of 7.4%. 6,000 of those new Trend jobs have been part-time with full-time up just 2,000.

To our south Townsville continues the trend of the past few months and sees good employment growth in April (up 1,700), although March’s gain was revised slightly lower (+1,800 from +2,200). The Trend unemployment rate now sits at 8.3% (down from 9.1% in March) but remains the second highest in the State. Over the past year Townsville has seen 9,800 new Trend jobs, which have come predominantly from full-time positions. Trend employment growth in Townsville now sits at 10.1%, which is the third fastest in the State.

Townsville is clearly recovering from the sharp downturn of last year, although it will be interesting to see whether uncertainty around the outcome of the Adani discussions (or the possible cancellation of the project) will impact jobs and confidence in coming months.

The Trend unemployment rate in Greater Brisbane edged sightly higher to 6.3% while it sits at 6.5% for the Rest of Queensland.

The Cairns Trend youth unemployment rate (which even after Trending remains a highly volatile series) sits at 16.1% up from 14.7% in March (which was in turn revised sharply higher). In Townsville the rate is 19.1% but this is now only the third highest rate in the State.

The full set of Conus Trend data is available for download below. Please feel free to use this data (for non-commercial purposes) but we would appreciate you acknowledging Conus when you do so.

Conus Trend Regional Jobs QLD – Apr 2017

Pete on radio 4CA this morning talking about our submission to the Productivity Commission’s Transitioning Regional Economies report

Pete was on radio 4CA this morning with John MacKenzie talking about his submission to the Productivity Commission’s Transitioning Regional Economies report (you can download the full submission from the PC website here). You can listen to the interview below.

Regional Building Approvals improve slightly in the North

Today saw the release of the March regional building approvals data from the ABS at both SA4 and LGA level. Following the (very) modest improvement in the Trend data at a state level last week (see here for details) we have seen a similar story emerge in the Far North.

Starting with the SA4 level data we see the Cairns Conus Trend improve to 77, after Feb was revised up from 71 to 75. Townsville fell very slightly to 70, but only after Feb was revised up from 67 to 71.

At the Local Government level we also see improvements. Cairns Regional Council (incl Douglas Shire) improved to 49 (Feb revised to 47 from 40). Tablelands Regional Council (incl Mareeba Shire) dipped to 18 (Feb revised up from 18 to 19). The Cassowary Coast Regional Council was unchanged at 6 while Townsville City Council was also unchanged at 67 (although Feb was revised up to 67 from 62).

Looking at the split across the State we see that this generally positive move in the North has occurred in the face of a somewhat weaker picture across the Rest of Queensland.

The full SA4 data set for the Conus Trend series for Queensland is available for download below. Please feel free to use this data (for non-commercial uses) but we would appreciate you acknowledging Conus when you do so.

Conus Trend Regional Building Approvals QLD – March 2017

Media still pushing old news about unemployment in Cairns

A piece in today’s Australian (read it here) perpetuates the old news that youth unemployment in Cairns is running at crisis levels. In this case the article quotes Cairns youth unemployment rate at 27.5%. As regular readers will know, this figure would appear to be the “official” 12 month moving average of the unadjusted original ABS data. The article quotes a Treasury document prepared for the Queensland government “late last year” at which time the 12 month moving average youth unemployment rate was about the quoted 27.5% level.

However, this extremely lagged measure of unemployment can be improved upon by utilising the Conus Trend which, at the end of last year, already had Trend Youth unemployment in Cairns down to 14.0%; and has subsequently fallen further still.

The problem with this focus on the 12 month moving average data can be seen clearly when we consider the most recent (March) data. The “official” 12 month moving average number remains elevated at 21.6% (note this is already a sharp decline from the number quoted in The Australian’s article today) but the Conus Trend sits at just 10.2%. With the “official” data still telling us that youth unemployment remains very high in Cairns, it is worth noting that the ABS original data hasn’t had a rate above 17.5% for 6 months and the most recent reading was just 7.3% (the lowest in almost 5 years). The 12 month moving average is simply not responsive enough to changes in the underlying data to allow for sensible decisions and positions to be taken based upon it.

In the past 6 months the original average level of youth unemployment in Cairns is just 12.4%. If nothing significant happens with regard to youth employment in the next six months then by September the Treasury will be reporting youth unemployment in Cairns at just 12.4% and those who believed the “official” numbers will be scratching their heads wondering what on earth happened since March to bring it down so sharply from 21.6%! In fact nothing will have happened during that period; the improvement had already happened but their data hadn’t picked it up.

I fully accept that our Trend estimates are subject to revision and the scale of the improvement seen over recent months may well be exaggerated, and therefore liable to revision, but the fact remains that to suggest that youth unemployment in Cairns is still at crisis levels is simply misleading. 

The Treasury report from the end of 2016 is quoted as saying that “there has been a relatively slow pick-up in labour-market demand” in Cairns. If we are only considering the lagged Treasury 12 month moving average data that may well be true. But since July last year those with an eye on the Conus Trend employment data for Cairns have been well aware of a significant pick-up in jobs which, even as early as the end of last year, had identified almost 8,000 new jobs over the previous 5 months; with another 1,000 added since.

It’s time that the Treasury and media stopped pushing the old, tired news that Cairns is some kind of employment black-hole when the reality proves different. This kind of negative reporting and thinking not only leads to bad policy making but it also negatively impacts sentiment in the region, an impediment to future improvements.


Little joy for the North in the Regional Building Approvals data

We’ve only now had time to crunch the numbers for the February regional building approvals data (released while we were on holiday a few weeks ago), but it doesn’t provide any joy for the North.

Considering the SA4 regional data first, the Conus Trend series for Cairns shows a slight improvement to 71 (after Jan was revised up from 69 to 70), this is still 35.8% below the level of a year ago. In Townsville the Conus Trend fell slightly to 67 (although Jan was revised from 66 to 68).

The complete data set for the Conus Trend Regional Building Approvals at the SA4 level is available for download below. Please feel free to use this data (for non-commercial purposes) but we would appreciate you acknowledging Conus when you do so.

Conus Trend Regional Building Approvals QLD – Feb 2017

At the Local Government Area level the story is a similar one. The Townsville City Council saw approvals dip to 62 (from 63), a decline of 4.6% for the year. In Cairns Regional Council (including Douglas Shire) the Trend was stable at 40, down 47.5% for the year. The Cassowary Coast was also stable at 6 (although only after Jan was revised up from 4) but remains down 23.8% from a year earlier. The Tablelands (including Mareeba) fell to 18 (from an unrevised 19 in Jan) and is down 21.2% from a year ago.

Jobs data makes for interesting reading

We’ve just returned from a couple of weeks in SE Asia so have some catching up to do. First thing on the agenda was the labour force data for March released last week. We saw the headline (seasonally adjusted) unemployment rate remain stable at 5.9% despite a very sharp addition of 60,900 new jobs; the reason an increase in the Participation Rate to 64.8. The much stronger jobs number came after the Feb data was revised to a 2,800 increase (rather than a 6,400 drop). Even more positively, full time employment was up a thumping 74,500 for the month.

The rather less dramatic, and therefore preferred, Trend measure was also better with 16,500 new jobs added (Feb was revised higher to +17,700 from +11,600) although the Trend unemployment rate actually nudged higher to 5.9% (from 5.8%) on the back of those higher PR numbers. However you look at it, this is a strong set of data for the nation. Seasonally adjusted employment is now up 145,900 over the past 12 months with 67,800 of those full time positions.

Queensland also saw improvements. The headline data showed an extra 28,800 new jobs (of which 33,100 were full time) and the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate dropped sharply to 6.3% (from a revised 6.6% in Feb). Participation was also much firmer at 64.6 (up from 64.1) and this will have stopped the unemployment rate dropping even further.

The Trend series also improved with 4,400 new jobs and Feb revised from +1,600 to +4,300. March’s increase in Trend employment is the strongest since Dec 2015. As the second chart below makes clear, things are certainly improving in the Sunshine State. Further analysis of the QLD data can be found from Gene Tunny at Adept Economics here and here.

The regional labour force data which was released this morning makes some very interesting reading. We shall be spending more time analysing the data tomorrow; but having crunched the numbers and formulated the Conus Trend series a number of major points become obvious.

Regional QLD is rapidly closing the gap on Greater Brisbane

In March, Trend employment in the Rest of Queensland was up 3,800 while Greater Brisbane could manage just 700 (note that totals may not add to the ABS Trend data due to rounding). Even more significantly, the Rest of Queensland increase included 3,000 full time positions while Greater Brisbane added just 100. Over the course of the past 6 months Greater Brisbane has shed 10,300 full time positions while the Rest of Queensland has added 9,300; and almost all of these are coming from the Bush (i.e. Rest of Queensland minus SEQ). Regions that have contributed to this growth are Townsville (see commentary below) which added 8,100; Wide Bay +4,100, Mackay +3,000, Cairns +2,400 and Toowoomba +1,400.

Townsville’s recovery is well underway

There can now be little doubt that things have turned a corner in Townsville. Trend employment was up 2,200 in March, this is the 8th consecutive month of Trend increases. The Trend unemployment rate has fallen sharply to 9.3%, although it remains the second highest in the State (after Outback at 12.8%). Employment growth over the past 12 months (admittedly from a weak base) now sits at +7.6% pa and is the third best in the State.

However, in spite of this solid employment growth the number in jobs remains well below the highs seen back in 2011.

The improvements in Cairns remain on track

Last month saw some deterioration in the Cairns Trend data on the back of a weak original number. We cautioned at the time reading too much into one month’s numbers and suggested that things could well get revised later. That has indeed happened with a return to some good numbers in March. Trend employment rose just 100 (Feb was revised to +200) but the Trend unemployment for Feb was revised sharply lower to 5.7% and has edged slightly higher this month to 5.8%. One month of a small worsening tells us next to nothing. What the data shows us over the past 12 months is that Trend employment in Cairns has been increasing at an average of about 670 per month and the unemployment rate has fallen from 9.1% to 5.8%.

The rate at which the employment:working population measure has improved in both Cairns and Townsville highlights the ongoing improvements being seen in the North generally.

Of particular interest is the level of Trend youth unemployment which has now fallen below the levels seen in Greater Brisbane and sits at just 10.2%. The scale of this decline needs to be treated with a great deal of caution (high volatility within the sub-set Trend series is to be expected) but, nevertheless, it is clear that the issue of very high youth unemployment in Cairns can no longer be touted as a major concern.

The complete Conus Trend data set for regional Queensland is available for download below (free for non-commercial use). Please feel free to use the data but we would appreciate you acknowledging Conus when you do so.

Conus Trend Regional Jobs QLD – March 2017

Job Seeker data confirms the generally better picture in Cairns

Regular readers will be well aware that there are various ways to look at the labour market; the standard “unemployment rate”being just one of them. Another, less well known measure, is provided by the Dept of Social Services in their monthly payment recipients data.

Our own Conus Trend series for Cairns SA4, based on the original ABS regional data, showed a slight edge up in Trend unemployment in February to 6.8% (see here for details). The Dept of Social Security payment recipients data released late last week was a little more positive and appears to confirm the generally improving trend in the Cairns labour market that we’ve been seeing for the past 9 months.

When looking at data for our region we sum the Dept of Social Service totals for the Atherton, Cairns, Innisfail, Mareeba, Mossman and Yarrabah Service Zones. These Service Zones, when taken together, may not precisely correspond to the Cairns SA4 region but are as good an approximation as we can get. Given the volatile nature of this original, unadjusted data series we have created a Conus Trend Job Seekers Rate using the trend number of payment recipients as a percentage of the Conus Trend Labour Force.

It needs stressing that how the Dept of Social Service count those who are seeking jobs and receiving allowances is very different from how the ABS define someone as “unemployed”. The rules around who receives what allowance also change over time so this is a data set that has to be treated with caution if making comparisons over periods when changes have occurred. As a result of these caveats we stress that the absolute levels may be difficult to reconcile with other measures, but the movements in Trends (at least over periods when rules don’t change) can provide us with useful supporting evidence.

It would seem that the improvements being seen in the Conus Trend series over the previous 9 months are being reflected (albeit slowly) in the Dept of Social Services data with the Trend Job Seekers rate now at an almost-two-year low of 8.26%

Regional population estimates show North lagging rest of QLD, Cairns-North still doing well.

The ABS have released their regional population estimates (up to mid year 2016) today and they show the North of the state lagging recent growth elsewhere. The data is provided at the Local Government Area (LGA) level as well at SA2 and above. Taking the LGA data first…

LGA 2016 est annual change % decade change %
Cairns 161,932 +1.0 +22.8
Douglas 11,844 +1.5 +12.5
Cassowary Coast 28,721 +0.1 +0.4
Tablelands 25,054 +0.3 +7.9
Mareeba 22,029 +0.9 +17.5
Townsville 195,914 +1.0 +22.8
QLD 4,843,303 +1.4 +20.8

While Cairns and Townsville have outpaced QLD growth over the past decade, that out-performance has now ceased with growth just 70% of the state average in the past year. The Cassowary Coast has finally returned to positive territory (although only just!) while the Tablelands Regional Council area has also been weak.

If we break the Far North (i.e. Cairns SA4) data down even further we can see quite a diverse range of outcomes across the region.

SA4 SA3 SA2 est change annual % change decade %
Cairns     246,110 +0.8 +17.3
Cairns-North 53,709 +1.7 +31.2
Brinsmead 5,666 +0.7 +8.9
Clifton Beach – Kewarra Beach 11,642 +2.1 +40.5
Freshwater – Stratford 4,058 +1.0 +10.5
Redlynch 12,733 +1.3 +35.0
Trinity Beach – Smithfield 13,216 +3.2 +60.4
Yorkeys Knob – Machans Beach 6,394 +0.6 +5.0
Cairns-South 104,790 +0.7 +20.1
Bentley Park 8,458 +0.2 +50.4
Cairns City 11,203 +1.3 +31.7
Earlville – Bayview Heights 8,721 +0.5 +4.1
Edmonton 11,224 +1.2 +35.8
Gordonvale – Trinity 8,890 +0.5 +28.3
Kanimbla – Mooroobool 10,184 +1.4 +15.1
Manoora 6,172 -0.1 +5.9
Manunda 5,450 +0.1 +3.6
Mount Sheridan 8,706 +0.2 +18.5
Westcourt – Bungalow 7,012 +1.0 +23.0
White Rock 4,887 +0.3 +22.6
Whitfield – Edge Hill 8,580 +0.3 +2.4
Woree 5,303 +1.7 +25.5
Innisfail-Cassowary Coast 34,843 +0.1 +0.4
Babinda 4,134 -0.5 -5.1
Innisfail 9,534 -0.2 -1.3
Johnstone 7,704 -0.7 -0.3
Tully 10,779 +1.1 +2.7
Yarrabah 2,689 +0.1 +9.0
Port Douglas-Daintree 11,787 +1.5 +12.4
Daintree 6,277 +0.9 +2.5
Port Douglas 5,510 +2.3 +26.3
Tablelands (East)-Kuranda 40,981 +0.5 +12.7
Atherton 11,050 +1.0 +15.5
Herberton 5,706 -0.4 +3.0
Kuranda 4,766 +0.3 +25.9
Malanda – Yungaburra 8,306 -0.2 +2.3
Mareeba 11,153 +1.1 +19.3

Cairns North, and in particular Trinity Beach, Clifton Beach and Redlynch, has been the stand-out growth area over the past decade, with Trinity and Clifton Beach still growing faster than average last year. In the south, Edmonton and Gordonvale have seen rapid growth over the past 10 years.

Outside of Cairns, Port Douglas has done well over the decade and continues to outperform the region as a whole. In the Cassowary Coast the only area to see growth at all over the 10 years was Tully (which includes Tully, Mission Beach and Cardwell) with the areas around Innisfail all falling. (Although Yarrabah is in the Innisfail-Cassowary Coast SA3 it is not in the Cassowary Coast Regional Council area. Babinda, likewise, is in the Cairns Regional Council area.)

The changing face of work in Cairns and Townsville

Yesterday saw the ABS release their February monthly regional labour force data, and our own Conus Trend series (see here for details). The ABS also released their quarterly data on regional employment by industry sector for the February quarter. This is presented on a quarterly basis as a rolling 4-quarter average, and as such should not be directly compared with our own Conus Trend monthly data.

Given the quarterly, averaged, nature of this data set it isn’t terribly useful as an indicator of actual employment levels right now; but what it does allow us to do is look at the changes in the landscape of work over the past 10 years. The charts below show the actual levels of employment in both Cairns and Townsville and also track the changes in the number of people employed in each industry over the past decade. Note that the ABS use the ANZSIC Industry classifications which do not include a “tourism” industry. Employment within the tourism sector is spread across multiple industries such as Accommodation & Food, Arts & Recreation Services, Retail Trade, Transport etc.


The big winners over the past 10 years in Cairns have been Health Care and Education with Construction being the biggest loser. Retail Trade remains the single largest employer, but this sector has only returned to that position in the last few quarters; prior to that both Health Care and Education had been larger.

The big difference we notice with Townsville is the fact that Health Care is such a clear winner in terms of total employed. Over the past decade Retail Trade and Construction have been the big losers in the region. Public Administration has seen the greatest growth with Health Care only slightly behind.