Good News on the Labour Market

The CSO released the results of the Quarterly National Household Survey for Quarter 2 2013 this morning, together with their population estimates for April of this year and the components of population change over the previous twelve months.

The news is mostly positive, showing clear evidence of a recovering labour market.

The level of employment has risen, with full-time employment up for the first time since 2008. Private sector employment is growing fairly strongly, offsetting the decline in public sector numbers.

Although still very high, overall unemployment is down and long-term unemployment has fallen as a proportion of the total.

The population increased only marginally between April 2012 and April 2013. The slowdown in population growth was due to (i) the continued high level of net emigration, with an increase in the outflow of Irish nationals, and (ii) a sharp fall in natural increase, due to the drop of almost 5% in the number of births.

Successful Completion of Tenth Review of Troika Programme

In a statement issued at the end of this Review yesterday, we were given the by-now familiar plaudits for achieving various benchmarks. Going forward, ‘strict implementation’ of this year’s budgetary targets is urged.

The gravity of the unemployment situation is acknowledged. ‘Swift action needed to deal with unemployment’ the newspaper headlines proclaimed. The onus for this is placed on the Irish government and a familiar list of policies proposed, including for example ‘the need for enhanced engagement with the unemployed and the opening up of competition in sheltered sectors like legal services’.

I wonder how much our readers think increased competition between lawyers will contribute to lowering our unemployment rate.

ESRI QEC Research Notes

Last week the latest ESRI Quarterly Economic Commentary was published. It includes 5 research notes including one by myself on the regional dimension of the unemployment crisis.

While there is a lot of discussion about unemployment, the differences across regions have not received much attention. The note shows that the differences are significant. It also shows that things would look a lot worse if it had not been for a drop in labour force participation – in the Border region the unemployment rate could have reached 27%. Not surprisingly a sharp drop in employment is the major cause of the increase in unemployment, but a look at the sectoral breakdown of employment changes gives some interesting results. Firstly, construction employment appears to have contracted quite uniformly across the country. Secondly, employment in education and health actually grew. Thirdly, there are some interesting differences across the regions with respect to other sectors. For example, manufacturing declined much more in Dublin than elsewhere. Most importantly the analysis suggests that the underlying factors that are responsible for the differences in unemployment rates across the regions are very persistent but were hidden during the boom. You can expect some more analysis on this in the near future.

The other notes are:
Tax and Taxable Capacity: Ireland in Comparative Perspective
Comparing Public and Private Sector Pay in Ireland: Size Matters
Trends in Consumption since the Crisis
Revisions to Population, Migration and the Labour Force, 2007-2011

Eurozone unemployment

Just like a year ago, we are hearing a lot of guff about how the euro crisis is over, and just like a year ago the people I talk to in Brussels are becoming increasingly alarmed by the complacency of the European establishment. It does seem as though the only thing that makes Europe’s useless political class worry is the risk of imminent cardiac arrest, as proxied by bond yields and the like; but the cancer of unemployment will do just as much damage if allowed to progress unchecked.

Here are the latest Eurozone unemployment statistics. Just because we are becoming used to this sort of news does not mean that they are even remotely acceptable. They are grim.

There are certain costs that are obviously not worth paying to keep the EMU experiment going. One is a dilution of the continent’s democratic traditions. Another is unemployment rates of the sort we are seeing in Spain and Greece. No doubt crocodile tears will be shed by supporters of status quo macroeconomic policies, but such responses are no longer acceptable. EMU supporters, and €-sceptics who are worried about the costs of an EMU break-up, now have to start being very concrete in terms of proposing Eurozone economic policies, including short run monetary and fiscal policies, that can start reversing these trends in 2013. (A group of us tried to do so here, for example.) And then we need to see such policies being implemented, quickly.

You have to live through times like this to really appreciate the wisdom of Keynes’ famous line about the long run.

Measuring Youth Unemployment

The problem of youth unemployment has rightly been highlighted as one of the major issues facing European countries today.  The newspapers have fastened on the shocking statistic that the unemployment rate among Spaniards and Greeks aged 15 – 25 is about 50 per cent, while the rate for the EU as a whole is about 20 per cent.  These are alarming numbers, but they are also somewhat misleading.

As Stephen Hill pointed out in a piece in the Financial Times on June 24th, the unemployment rate may not be the best measure of labour market conditions among young people who have opportunities to stay in the educational and training systems rather than entering a depressed labour market.  For this reason, an alternative measure, the unemployment ratio, has gained currency.

The conventional unemployment rate is  the numbers ‘unemployed’ as a proportion of the ‘labour force’.  The ‘labour force’ is the sum of the employed and unemployed.  The ‘unemployed’ are those actively seeking work, but not at work. (For young people it is of interest to break unemployment down into those ‘looking for first regular job’ and those who are ‘unemployed having lost or given up previous job’.)

The problem with using the  unemployment rate to measure labour market conditions among young people is that the denominator does not include those who are in the educational system or on full-time training courses.  During a recession, the higher the proportion of a youth cohort that stays on in school or college or in training, the smaller the labour force and the higher the unemployment rate. This is perverse.

By using the whole cohort as the denominator, the unemployment ratio avoids this pitfall and it may be argued that it therefore provides a clearer picture of hardship being caused by the lack of employment. (Of course this is subject to the reservation that increased educational participation may involve putting square pegs in round holes, with some young people taking courses in which they have no interest.)

The limitations of the unemployment rate as a measure of labour market conditions among the youth population is acknowledged by Eurostat, who now publish both the ratio and the rate for the population aged 15-24.  (Their recent figures for Ireland for 2011 are low and may not reflect the latest Census returns.)

The distinction between the unemployment rate and ratio certainly matters.  Data in the recently-released 2011 Census of Population volume This is Ireland Part 2 show the population classified by ‘principal economic status’. These reveal an unemployment rate of 38.7 per cent among the population aged 15-24 compared with an unemployment ratio of 14.2 per cent. While the ratio of 14.2 per cent gives no grounds for complacency, it is less alarming than the headline rate of almost 40 per cent.

It is perhaps even more important to note that the unemployment ratio has not risen as dramatically as the unemployment rate since the onset of the recession in 2008. The Figure displays the three concepts based on the 2006 and 2011 Census data.

(The Table at the end provides more details.)

Whereas the unemployment rate rose by 140% the ratio rose by 90%.  Thus, the rate tends to overstate both the level of unemployment among young people and the rate at which it has risen.

It may, however, be objected that the unemployment ratio includes all those who are not in the labour force in the denominator but excludes discouraged workers and similar forms of disguised unemployment from the numerator.  This bias would certainly be significant among older workers, who are more likely to cease looking for work and to drop out of the labour force because no jobs are available.  Its effect on the youth data, however, is smaller because labour force categories other than ‘employed’, ‘student, and ‘unemployed’ are relatively unimportant among the young.  In 2011 less than 2 per cent of population aged 15- 24 are classified as ‘looking after home/family’!

None the less, to take account of ‘dsicouraged workers’ it is worth looking at another concept that has gained some currency .  This is the NEET ratio. It refers to the proportion of the population that is Not in Employment, Education or Training.  To calculate this ratio for Ireland I have assumed that those in ‘(full-time) training’ are classified as ‘students’ in the Census.  The resulting ratio must, by definition, fall between the unemployment ratio and the unemployment rate.  From the Figure we can see that it lies closer to the unemployment ratio. Moreover, it has risen less rapidly than either the unemployment rate or ratio.   In 2011 the NEET ratio was ‘only’ 65 per cent above it 2006 level.

It is striking that the widely-used unemployment rate is so much higher, and has risen so much more, than the alternative – and arguably better – measures of the situation in the youth labour market.

The reason why the unemployment rate overstates both the level and rise in Irish youth unemployment is the high level of educational participation and its marked increase over the past five years. The proportion of the 15-24 year-old population in the educational system rose from 50.1 per cent in 2006 to 60.5 per cent in 2011.  While not all of the additional years of schooling will be as productive as we would wish, being in the educational system is less wasteful than being unemployed.  This aspect of the adjustment to the present crisis is concealed by the conventional youth unemployment rate.

None the less, we cannot lose sight of the collapse of employment among the youth population.  In 2006 39.5 per cent of the population aged 15-24 was in employment.  By 2011 this percentage had fallen to 22.5.  Among those aged 20-24 the rate declined from 60.0 to 39.0.  While the youth unemployment crisis may not be as severe as suggested by the headline youth unemployment rate, it is a crisis.