Beyond the unemployment rate: is immigration really the solution to the Australian skills shortages problem?
Australia is currently experiencing a skills shortage, particularly in the traditional trades. This is beginning to constrain economic growth and put upward pressure on wages and hence inflation (Housing Industry Association, 2005, BusinessSA, 2006). The official measures of labour under utilisation for Australia also show that the labour market is fully employed. This view of the Australian labour market is being used to support the view that the only viable option to address the skills shortage is to boost the immigration of skilled workers. The official measure of labour under utilisation in Australia, the trend unemployment rate, provides information about labour under utilisation that is generated by cyclical unemployment and frictional unemployment. However, the period between 1989 and 2005 is characterised by profound economic restructuring and labour market restructuring, which in turn have contributed to a substantial growth in hidden unemployment and visible under employment (see for example Wooden, 1996 and Barrett, 2004). Hence, the actual level of labour under utilisation in Australia is much higher than the trend unemployment rate suggests. Consequently, a number of Australian labour market analysts have developed alternative labour market indicators in order to produce more accurate estimates of labour under utilisation for Australia.
The aim of this article is to investigate the validity of the claim that the Australian labour market is fully employed and hence immigration is the only viable solution to the current skills shortage. The article uses labour market indicators, the comprehensive unemployment rate (Barrett, 2004) and the comprehensive employment rate, (Barrett et al. 2006). These two indicators were developed to overcome some of the shortcomings of the official unemployment rate (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007b) and hence provide more accurate estimates of labour under utilisation in Australia. The article argues that there are considerably more unemployed labour resources available to the Australian labour market than either the trend unemployment rate or the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate suggest. Hence, the immigration of skilled workers may not be the only solution to the skills shortage. Section 2 briefly reviews the construction of the comprehensive unemployment rata. Section 3 then re-examines the Australian labour market using the comprehensive unemployment rate. Section 4 then constructs the comprehensive employment rate and then briefly discusses workforce-planning options to assist the Australian labour market to address the skills shortage. The article concludes that Australia has sufficient unemployed labour reserves to meet the quantitative dimension of the skills shortage, but what is required are policies to re-integrate the hidden unemployed into the labour market and to assist them to acquire those skills that are in short supply.
Three Alternative Labour Market Indicators
Despite the strong economic and employment growth that Australia has experienced since the recovery from the recession commenced in 1993, there is a growing sense that this new long boom is passing by an increasing number of people (see for example Bell 2000, Bell 2002 and Borland, Gregory and Sheehan, 2001, ACOSS, 2003, Vogel, 2005). This sense of the boom passing by ordinary people is also a feature of the Canadian (Jackson, 2000, Burke and Shields, 1999) and the British economies (Beatty and Fothergill, 1997). Vogel (2005; 414) argued that there is a growing 'chasm' between the real level of unemployment in Australia and the official level. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the level of labour under utilisation that is shown to exist by the official unemployment figures, the trend unemployment rate and the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007) in Australia is a statistical artefact. The labour market indicators that are developed from the International Labour Organisation, Labour Force Convention 160, which include the labour force statistics produced by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, substantially under estimate the level of labour under utilisation in Australia because they are designed to capture information about the types of employment and joblessness that are associated with standard employment relationships (Mate Greenwood, 1999). As a result, the official unemployment rate is essentially just a measure of cyclical unemployment and frictional unemployment. So, they ignore the not inconsiderable amount of labour under utilisation that is associated with the growth in hidden unemployment and visible under employment that has occurred since the early-1990x. It is therefore not surprising that a number of Australian labour market analysts have attempted to develop alternative labour market indicators that provide better estimates of labour under utilisation (see for example, Watson and Callus, 1999, Mitchell and Carlson, 2000, Mitchell, 2001, Wooden 1996, ACOSS, 2003, Barrett, 2004, Barrett et al., 2006). These labour market indicators involve adding estimates of hidden unemployment, or visible under employment, or both, to the official unemployment rate.
The recovery from the recession of the early-1990s created substantial amounts of cyclical unemployment, that was transformed into structural unemployment as a result of the restructuring of the Australian economy that occurred during the latter part of the 1990s (Watson and Callus, 1999). This structural unemployment was eventually translated into hidden unemployment as structurally unemployed people withdrew from the labour force. The Australian Bureau of Statistics collects some information about the extent of hidden unemployment in Australia. However, there is growing evidence that the Australian Bureau of Statistics substantially under estimates the level of hidden unemployment because the Labour Force Survey excludes many, if not most, discouraged workers (see for example ACOSS, 2003). Consequently, the real unemployment rate was developed to provide better estimates of the level of hidden unemployment in Australia (Barrett, 2004). The real unemployment rate is a person rate of unemployment that is essentially a measure of the number of people who might reasonably be expected to work in a fully employed economy (Beatty and Fothergill, 1997; 138).
The real unemployment rate is based on two labour force participation gaps that have grown substantially during the 1990s. These labour force participation gaps are an indication of the extent of hidden unemployment in Australia. Since 1989 there has been a substantial decline in the male labour force participation rate, which in many States has not been offset by the associated increase in the female labour force participation rate. The fall in the male labour force participation rate from its peak during the boom of the late-1980s and the resultant gap between this maximum and the present figure provides the basis of estimating male hidden unemployment. Second, the gap between a particular State female labour force participation rate and the State with the highest female labour force participation rate (this is usually Western Australia) is used as the basis for estimating female hidden unemployment for each State.
Part-time employment has become the driver of employment growth in Australia since the early-1990s. The creation of large amounts of part-time employment is not a bad thing if the supply of part-time work matches the demand of workers for part-time work. However, if those people in part-time work have unfulfilled aspirations for full-time jobs, or even more part-time hours, then this mismatch will lead to the creation of visible under employment. The hours unemployment rate adds an estimate of visible under employment to the trend unemployment rate.
These two labour market indicators provide only partial solutions to estimating the real level of labour under utilisation in Australia as each only adjusts the trend unemployment rate for one type of labour under utilisation. However, the real unemployment rate and the hours unemployment rate can be combined to produce the comprehensive unemployment rate. The comprehensive unemployment rate is also an hours rate of unemployment that adds estimates of hidden unemployment and visible under employment to the trend unemployment rate to yield more accurate estimates of the extent of labour under utilisation in Australia.
An alternative view of the Australian labour market
The conventional wisdom about the performance of the Australian labour market since the end of the 1980s, based on an examination of the Australian Bureau of Statistics Labour Force Statistics (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007), is that it has fully recovered from the recession of the early-1990s. The Australian labour market contracted between 1991 and 1993 with the peak trend unemployment rate of 11.5 per cent attained in 1993. Then there were two years of quick recovery followed by a decade of reasonably steady improvement. By early-2005 the trend unemployment rate had fallen to about five per cent, which is an historically low level of unemployment. For most States, the recovery from the trough of 1993 was interrupted to some extent by the Asian Economic Crisis or the 2000 Olympics (Table 1).
The trend unemployment rate is the official measure of labour under utilisation in Australia. However, it is essentially only a measure of the labour under utilisation that occurs in Australia as a result of changes to the level of cyclical unemployment, as the level of frictional unemployment is fairly constant. Hence, it does not really tell the whole story of the last Australian business cycle. However, it is becoming increasingly widely recognised that the economic restructuring of the 1990s, and the associated labour market restructuring, has led to the creation of substantial amounts of labour under utilisation associated with hidden unemployment and visible under employment, which are not captured fully by the trend unemployment rate. The following is a re-interpretation of the last 17 years using the comprehensive unemployment rate. The trend unemployment rate for the six Australian States is shown in Table 1. These figures are to be compared and contrasted to the comprehensive unemployment rate, shown in Table 2. The comprehensive unemployment rate is a broader measure of labour under utilisation that the trend unemployment rate, hence, the comprehensive unemployment rate is always greater than the corresponding trend figure. However, the gap between these two labour market indictors is growing.
The contraction of the New South Wales labour market in the early-1990s is clearly visible in Table 2. The recovery occurs in two distinct phases, a strong improvement during 1994 and 1995, followed by a steady, decline during the remainder of the 1990s, which is interrupted by the Asian Economic Crisis and the 2000 Olympic Games. Overall, Table 2 suggests that there has been little improvement in the New South Wales labour market since 1995 as the comprehensive unemployment rate for 2005 is comparable to 1995 figure and is nearly 50 per cent greater than the 1990 figure. Moreover, recent trends are worsening rather than improving.
Table 2 shows the contraction of the Victorian labour market during the early-1990s followed by two years of strong recovery. However, there was little improvement in the comprehensive unemployment rate in the latter half of the 1990s. The present comprehensive unemployment rate is considerably lower than the peak attained in 1993 and 1994, but it is about double the 1990 figure. Hence, there has only been a partial recovery in the Victorian labour market since 1993. Moreover, the labour market recovery that has occurred is largely due to the sharp rebound that occurred during the two years following the trough of the recession.
Changes in the comprehensive unemployment rate for South Australia are also shown in Table 2. Again the contraction is clearly visible, but it is the experience after 1993 that sets South Australia apart from the other States. There was no improvement in the South Australian labour market during the 1990s. There is also no evidence of any rebound in the comprehensive unemployment rate between 1993 and 1995. Nor is there any evidence of a steady decline throughout the remainder of the 1990s. The South Australian labour market only began to improve during 2002. The comprehensive unemployment rate in 2005 is about 50 per cent higher than the 1990 figure. Hence, there has only been a partial recovery of the South Australian labour market from the recession, much of which has occurred only in the last few years.
Table 2 shows what is by now becoming a familiar story. The Western Australian labour market contracted earlier than the other States between 1989 and 1992, followed by two years of strong growth. However, this growth only partially offset the earlier contraction. Moreover, there was no improvement in the comprehensive unemployment rate during the remainder of the 1990s. It is not until the early-2000s that Western Australia again begins to recover. Even Western Australia, the power house of the Australian economy, whose Gross State Product rose by 7.2 per cent in 2006 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007a; 9) has yet to fully recover from the recession.
The comprehensive unemployment rate shows the Queensland labour market contracting between 1990 and 1993, but unlike the other mainland States, there is no evidence of a subsequent strong rebound between 1993 and 1995 (Table 2). Indeed, there is no evidence of a decrease in the comprehensive unemployment rate throughout the 1990s. It is not until 2001 that the Queensland labour market begins to improve. The comprehensive unemployment rate has fallen sharply since 2001, in line with falls in the trend unemployment rate. Such that, by early-2005 the comprehensive unemployment rate had fallen below the 1990 figure. On the basis of this evidence, Queensland is the only State that has recovered fully from the recession.
Tasmania (Table 2) is unlike any of the mainland States. The Tasmanian labour market contracted during 1990 and 1991, but there was no subsequent rebound. Indeed, labour under utilisation in Tasmania actually increased further throughout the remainder of the 1990s to peak in 2003. After which there was a rapid fall in the comprehensive unemployment rate. Nevertheless, the 2005 figure is only marginally better that the 1993 "peak" and is over 50 per cent higher than the 1990 figure.
In summary, the comprehensive unemployment rate: shows two important features of the Australian labour market, that are not revealed by the trend unemployment rate. First, the real level of labour under utilisation is between double (in the case of Queensland) and quadruple (as in the case of Tasmania) the level suggested by the trend unemployment rate. Second, with the exception of Queensland, no State labour market has fully recovered from the recession of the early-1990s.
THE COMPREHENSIVE EMPLOYMENT RATE
The preceding section follows an established tradition in Australian labour market analysis, to analyse the labour market in terms of the number of people who are unemployed. This approach places unemployed people in the spotlight and makes them the focus of labour market policy. It also provides neo-liberal labour market analysts with the space that they need to blame the unemployment problem on unemployed people themselves. McKay (1998) argued that from this neo-liberal perspective, unemployment is the result of unconstrained choice by the unemployed, who in turn need to be coerced back into jobs, no matter how poorly paid or how poor the working conditions. Further, Gregory (2000; 5) summarised the neo-liberal argument that unemployment of the young and the unskilled is the result of relative wages for these groups of workers being too high relative to their (lower) productivity. Consequently, unemployment can be eliminated by reducing wages.
On the other hand, neo-Keynesian labour market analysts such as McKay (1998) argue that unemployment is largely caused by decisions made by employers. That is the demand for workers is too low and employers need to be encouraged to employ more people. A Keynesian perspective of the labour market focuses on the demand for labour, which is derived from the marginal physical product of labour schedule (Fischer, Dornbusch and Schamlensee, 1988; 274). So, unemployment can be reduced if the demand for labour is increased by increasing labour productivity. Government policy can help to increase marginal physical product of labour if they support firms to invest in new capital equipment and if they help workers to invest in their own human capital.
All measures of labour under utilisation that can be expressed as a percentage, such as the trend unemployment rate or the comprehensive unemployment rate, can easily be converted into their complement by subtracting the unemployment rate from 100 per cent. This simple piece of arithmetic turns the perspective of the Australian labour market on its head. Australian labour market analysts would no longer be looking at an unemployment rate, but rather an employment rate. This in turn would shift the spotlight of labour market analysis away from unemployed workers to under employing employers. The comprehensive unemployment rate for Australia is presented in Table 3.
At first glance this sounds like a simple semantic exercise. However, it addresses an important public policy debate, the skills shortage. At the time of writing (late-2006) the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for all States was about five per cent. Not surprisingly, the pro-immigration lobby, for example both the Housing Industry Association (2006) and Business SA (2006) asserted that this means that 95 per cent of Australian labour resources were employed and hence the Australian labour market is fully employed. Consequently, they argue that the Commonwealth Government must increase immigration to alleviate the skills shortages in the traditional trades. This sounds like a compelling argument. With full employment it will be difficult to alleviate skills shortages by increasing trades training or through the continued reform of the industrial relations system because there are simply no people in Australia to train. So, immigration is essentially the only realistic solution to the present skills shortage. However, an examination of the both the comprehensive unemployment rate and the comprehensive employment rate in Table 3 demonstrates the fundamental weakness of this argument.
Table 3 shows two interesting pieces of information about the actual level of employment in Australia. Firstly the comprehensive unemployment rate ranges from 79.8 per cent for Tasmania to 89.9 per cent for Queensland. This is well below the 95 per cent that the pro-immigration lobby asserts is the case. These figure suggest that there are at least double the amount of human resources available to the Australian labour market than the trend unemployment rate suggests. Second, with the exception of Queensland, the comprehensive employment rate is substantially lower than the level that prevailed at the peak of the last business cycle. Hence, this labour market indicator suggests that there is ample excess labour available in Australia to address the current skills shortage. Hence, there is no need for a quick fix via increased immigration. However, as Fothergill and Macmillan (2003) suggest the long-term solution to the skills shortage will be much more nuanced, requiring changes to many aspects of workforce development, including changes to education, training, employment relations and employer attitudes to people who have been out of the labour market for some time.
The workforce- development and planning implications of demographic change and ageing are attracting the attention of researchers and policy makers in most OECD countries, including Australia. Consequently, a significant amount of research into workforce development and planning has been undertaken in Europe and North America (see for example Reichenberg, 2002, Aijala, 2002). By comparison, few detailed workforce development and planing studies have been Under taken in Australia. The South Australian Government, for example, commissioned two reviews to investigate the implications of demographic change and ageing on occupational demand and supply in South Australia, inter alia, in order address this paucity of research. These two reviews Skills for the Future Inquiry (Schofield, 2003) and Review of South Australian Employment Programs (Spoehr, 2003) recommended the need for a workforce development strategy for South Australia. Despite the paucity of research on this topic, it is clear that a workforce crisis is looming for Australia in the foreseeable future.
The cause of this crisis is quite simple, however the solution is likely to be complex. At a quantitative level, as the baby boomer generation ages the wave of retirements that will occur over the next decade or so will create large numbers of job vacancies in the Australian labour market. However, the size of the cohort of people that will be entering the labour market over the next decade is considerably smaller than the cohort that is leaving. 1n demographic terms, the very large baby boomer generation is being replaced in the labour market by the children of the baby bust generation, which is a very much smaller cohort. Put simply, this means that there will not be enough new labour market entrants to fill all the vacancies created by the retirement of the baby boomers. Much of the present debate about how to solve this problem is focusing on the best way to increase the level of migration to Australia. A key component of that approach is how to best manage the Australian diaspora. That is, what is the best way of encouraging the more than one million Australians who are currently living overseas to return to Australia (see for example Hugo, Harris, Bell, Spoehr and Coffee, 2000). However, there is another source of workers that largely seems to have been ignored by the current debate, the hidden unemployed.
Promoting the (re)-entry of the hidden unemployed into the South Australian labour market is a possible solution to this problem, but it is a solution that needs to be carefully thought through. However, policy makers need to avoid the trap of addressing the looming labour market crisis at the macro level. That is, they need to avoid the simplistic solution of determining the level of labour demand in the Australian economy and then increasing the supply of labour by this number by promoting immigration and encouraging discouraged workers back into the labour market. As Fothergill and Macmillan (2003) argued, discouraged workers often face complex and unique circumstances that prevent their full labour market engagement. So, encouraging discouraged workers back into the labour market is a much more difficult problem that it seems. Policy makers need to acknowledge that there is no such thing as one big homogenous Australian labour market. Rather, there are a great many small labour markets in Australia, each defined by its own geographic region, the skills demanded by local employers and the skills possessed by local workers. Moreover, as demonstrated by Fothergill and Macmillan (2003), these local labour markets have obstacles on both the demand side and the supply side that act as barriers to the (re)-integration of discouraged workers. So, for employment policy to be effective, it needs to be developed at a very fine grained, micro level. These barriers need to be studied in more depth to understand how discouraged workers can be assisted in overcoming these barriers and hence (re)-enter the labour market in sufficient numbers for this approach to be part of the solution to the looming labour force crisis in Australia.
This article uses two new labour market indicators to re-examine Australian labour market over the period 1989 to 2005. Developing better estimates of labour under utilisation is not an end in itself. Employment and unemployment policies need to be informed by timely and accurate labour force data. Poor labour market data can only lead to poor labour market policy, 'garbage in, garbage out'. In a very real sense this is what is happening in Australia today. This article is one of any number of recent attempts (see for example Mitchell and Carlson, 2000, Wooden, 1996, Barrett, 2004) to provide more accurate estimates of labour under utilisation in Australia by developing an hours rate of unemployment that adds estimates of hidden unemployment and visible under employment to the trend unemployment rate.
This article starts by following an established tradition in Australian labour market analysis--to analyse the labour market in terms of the number of people who are unemployed. This approach places unemployed people in the spotlight and makes them the focus of labour market policy. It also provides neo-liberal labour market analysts with the space that they need to blame the unemployment problem on unemployed people themselves. However, all measures of labour under utilisation that can be expressed as a percentage, such as the trend unemployment rate or the comprehensive unemployment rate, can easily be converted into their complement by subtracting the unemployment rate from 100 per cent. This simple piece of arithmetic turns the perspective of the Australian labour market on its head. Australian labour market analysts would no longer be looking at an unemployment rate, but rather an employment rate. This in turn would shift the spotlight of labour market analysis away from the behaviour of unemployed workers to the behaviour of under employing employers. For example, Australian labour market analysts would not be asking why 20 per cent of available labour resources are unemployed in Tasmania, rather they would be forced to ask why Tasmanian employers are only employing 80 per cent of available labour resources. Moreover, the comprehensive employment rate shows that there are ample reserves of labour in Australia to meet the challenges of the skills shortage. This in turn should shift the debate from how best to boost immigration to how best integrate the hidden unemployed into the labour market and to help them acquire the skills that are in strong demand by the labour market.
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Table 1: Trend Unemployment Rate, Australia, persons, 1989 to 2005, per cent New South Victoria South Western Queens Tasmania Wales Australia Australia -land 1989 6.6 5.1 7.5 5.8 7.1 9.7 1990 6.0 4.5 6.7 6.7 6.8 8.1 1991 7.6 8.6 8.8 9.4 9.5 9.3 1992 9.5 10.9 11.0 10.8 9.8 10.7 1993 10.7 11.4 11.2 9.6 10.3 11.9 1994 9.9 11.3 10.6 8.4 9.6 11.4 1995 8.2 9.1 9.7 7.2 8.4 10.5 1996 7.4 8.4 9.1 7.3 8.9 9.7 1997 7.7 8.8 9.2 7.2 9.5 10.3 1998 7.2 8.1 9.6 6.8 8.4 10.4 1999 6.6 7.3 8.7 6.9 7.7 10.2 2000 5.6 6.5 8.0 6.2 7.7 8.7 2001 5.6 6.0 7.1 6.5 8.2 8.6 2002 6.2 6.3 6.9 6.5 7.9 8.5 2003 6.1 5.7 6.0 6.0 7.1 9.1 2004 5.4 5.6 6.5 5.6 6.2 6.9 2005 5.3 5.5 5.3 4.7 4.5 5.6 Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics unpublished trend series data for February. Table 2: Comprehensive Unemployment Rate, Australia, persons, 1989 to 2005, per cent New Victoria South Western Queens- South Australia Australia land Tasmania Wales 1989 11.0 8.1 11.9 7.8 10.7 17.9 1990 10.7 7.2 12.0 9.8 10.2 13.8 1991 11.6 12.5 12.7 13.1 13.9 16.4 1992 14.4 16.5 17.6 15.4 14.5 20.3 1993 17.6 18.4 18.8 14.7 15.1 21.8 1994 16.3 18.4 18.3 12.4 14.8 21.4 1995 15.0 16.3 19.2 10.8 13.7 21.7 1996 13.5 15.0 17.7 12.0 13.3 20.0 1997 14.5 15.5 18.7 11.8 15.3 22.8 1998 14.5 14.9 20.1 11.5 13.4 23.0 1999 14.5 15.5 20.1 12.0 13.4 24.3 2000 13.4 15.3 17.8 11.4 14.1 22.7 2001 14.2 14.3 19.7 11.7 15.5 23.0 2002 14.6 14.7 21.3 13.0 14.4 23.1 2003 13.9 14.3 18.9 12.4 14.0 23.6 2004 13.2 13.9 16.7 12.1 12.3 20.6 2005 14.3 13.9 16.2 10.3 10.1 20.2 Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics unpublished trend series data for February. Table 3: Comprehensive Employment Rate, Australia, persons, 1989 to 2005, per cent New Victoria South Western Queens- South Australia Australia land Tasmania Wales 1989 89.0 91.9 88.1 92.2 89.3 82.1 1990 89.3 92.8 88.0 90.2 89.8 86.2 1991 88.4 87.5 87.3 86.9 86.1 83.6 1992 85.6 83.5 82.4 84.6 85.5 79.7 1993 82.4 81.6 81.2 85.3 84.9 78.2 1994 83.7 81.6 81.7 87.6 85.2 78.6 1995 85.0 83.7 80.8 89.2 86.3 78.3 1996 86.5 85.0 82.3 88.0 86.7 80.0 1997 85.5 84.5 81.3 88.2 84.7 77.2 1998 85.5 85.1 79.9 88.5 86.6 77.0 1999 85.5 84.5 79.9 88.0 86.6 75.7 2000 86.6 84.7 82.2 88.6 85.9 77.3 2001 85.8 85.7 80.3 88.3 84.5 77.0 2002 85.4 85.3 78.7 87.0 85.6 76.9 2003 86.1 85.7 81.1 87.6 86.0 76.4 2004 86.8 86.1 83.3 87.9 87.7 79.4 2005 85.7 86.1 83.8 89.7 89.9 79.8 Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics unpublished trend series data for February.
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|Publication:||International Journal of Employment Studies|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2007|
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