1.1 million workers want more hours

Photo: Jesse Marlow A record 1.1 million workers want more hours but can’t get them.
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Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics reveal a record 8.7 per cent of people with a job are now officially classified as “underemployed”.

When the bureau first started measuring so-called “underemployment” in 1978, the rate was as low as 2.6 per cent. But since then, a changing industrial landscape, the loss of hundreds of thousands manufacturing jobs and a structural shift towards services, has left growing numbers clinging to employment by the barest of margins.

The trend has been particularly pronounced for men, with a record 7.2 per cent classified as underemployed in August this year, up from 5.3 per cent four years earlier in August 2012.

Underemployment for women has also been increasing, although less steeply, rising to 10.5 per cent from 9.5 per cent over the past four years.

The figures, released on Thursday, showed the unemployment rate was steady at 5.6 per cent in October, with 41,500 new full-time jobs offset by the loss of 31,700 part-time roles. But economists warned the headline figures could mask underlying weakness in the jobs market.

Sue Richardson, from the National Institute of Labour Studies at Flinders University, said the problems of underemployment and “non-employment” were increasingly acute among men with low levels of education.

“It is blue collar men in particular who have been suffering,” professor Richardson said. “A lot of it has been structural change in the economy – employment in the manufacturing sector where these men often found decent work has been declining for decades.”

Professor Richardson said employment opportunities for workers with low levels of education had tended to be in the service sector, in areas such as childcare, healthcare, retail, cleaning. “For a bunch of reasons men (with low levels of education) don’t want to do this sort of work,” she said.

Unemployment and underemployment are particularly acute problems in parts of the country reliant on tradition blue collar manufacturing jobs. In parts of Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, which is bracing for the looming closure of the Hazelwood Power Station, unemployment is already as high as 19.5 per cent.

The figures follows a warning from federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten last weekend that “some of the seeds of the disquiet” that helped deliver Donald Trump his shock victory in the United States are growing in Australia, with falling living standards, rising inequality and deteriorating job security.

Other figures release by the bureau this week showed wages crept up by just 1.9 per cent over the year to September, a record low and about half the rate four years earlier.

Shadow Employment Minister Brendan O’Connor said about 90,000 full-time jobs had been lost over the year to October, with about 1.8 million Australians now looking for a job or more work and not being able to find it.

JPMorgan’s Tom Kennedy said the numbers confirmed the view that the unemployment rate was overstating the strength of the labour market.

“Alternative measures of spare capacity, such as the composition of employment, the employment to population ratio and hours worked, [are] all still soft,” Mr Kennedy said.

Annette Beacher from TD Securities agreed saying that was how the Reserve Bank of Australia was likely to view the numbers too.

“The bank is focused on underemployment via a lack of hours worked. Employment growth in recent years has been skewed towards services (health care, the public service and the leisure sector) while heavy industry jobs (mining, manufacturing) are still being lost.”

With Jens Meyer, Mathew Dunckley

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