Exceptional results for Cairns in regional Labour Force data…but beware hidden issues

The ABS release of their January original, unadjusted regional Labour Force data this morning allows us to update our own Conus/CBC Staff Selection Regional Employment Trend series; and it holds some surprisingly positive news for Cairns.

But first, looking more broadly across the state we see Greater Brisbane has added just 5,100 to employment in the past 12 months (at a rate of just +0.4%) and has seen the Trend unemployment rate lift 0.4% to 6.2% in that period. The good news is that full-time employment has increased far more strongly and is up 14,200 for the year (although this is still only a growth of 1.6%).

The Rest of Queensland has added 22,700 to Trend employment over the past 12 months (a pace of 1.9%) with 17,000 of those full-time (growth of 2.0%). Trend unemployment in the regions has fallen by 0.4% to 5.9% in January.

Looking closer to home we see a rather surprising (and frankly unbelievable) collapse in the Trend rate of unemployment in Cairns. Recently we noted that a slight uptick in Trend Jobseekers could have seen our December data for Cairns revised slightly higher (see here); the actual data suggests a virtual collapse in unemployment in the region! The original data has the unemployment rate in Cairns at just 1.6% (after 3.1% in Dec) and the number unemployed at just 2,100 (and 3,900 in Dec). The actual Jobseeker data for December makes it clear that this survey data is grossly underestimating the number unemployed in Cairns at the moment. These extraordinary figures see the Trend unemployment rate drop to 3.5% in January. While the temptation might be to simply ignore this data as clearly erroneous, we would argue that a better approach would be to focus on the picture that the Trend data over the longer term is painting (and continues to paint) and accept that in all likelihood these extreme unemployment prints will be revised out in coming months.

Trend employment has lifted again in January (+1,300) and is now up 8,200 for the past 12 months at a pace of 7.1%. The gains have been almost evenly split between full and part-time positions. This lift in employment, together with a modest lift in Trend participation over the year, suggest that the Cairns labour market is significantly stronger than it was a year ago (even if we accept the fact that a 3.5% Trend unemployment rate is not feasible).

However, as the chart below makes clear, despite the obvious improvements seen in the region we are yet to return to a labour market as strong as we had pre-GFC when considering employment against the size of the working population; the factor behind the apparent paradox is that Trend participation has fallen sharply since 2008 so even with a very low unemployment rate Trend employment is still only just above the levels seen a decade ago.

To our South in Townsville the data continues to worsen again. Trend employment dropped 1,200 in January and is now down 3,700 for the year (at a rate of -3.5%). Worryingly, all the declines in employment have come in the full-time sector with Trend part-time employment up just 100. The Trend unemployment rate has started to rise again (up 0.2% to 6.8%) despite being down for the year on the back of sharply weaker participation. As yet there is no sign of a sustainable recovery in Townsville and we shall have to wait and see what impacts the recent flooding event has on data in coming months.

The full Conus/CBC Staff Selection Regional Employment Trend data is available for download below. Please feel free to use this data but kindly acknowledge Conus/CBC Staff Selection when you do so.

Conus/CBC Staff Selection Regional Employment Trend QLD – Jan 2019


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