The latest delivery of regional employment statistics has left economists scratching their heads over what is actually going on in the Hunter labour market.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics monthly labour force survey for August shows 2600 more people losing work in Newcastle and Lake Macquarie. Yet the number of unemployed people also fell, by 5000, and the jobless rate plummeted from 9.7 to 7.4 per cent.
The labour force participation rate, a measure of the number of people in work or looking for jobs, fell back to just 60.5 per cent, its lowest level since COVID-19 lockdowns began in March.
Apparently, 7600 Novocastrians left the jobs market altogether last month and are now at home watching TV and not applying for the dole.
Jobs down. Unemployment down. Confused? You're not alone.
Two economists told the Newcastle Herald that the official regional statistics were difficult to assimilate.
The ABS has started issuing stronger warnings about how its regional data should be reported. This is partly due to the potentially small sample sizes on which the regional data is based, and partly because COVID is such an unusual statistical event.
Business NSW has started publishing its own stats based on a moving average of unemployment numbers since April, but even these have produced some weird results, like Newcastle losing 26,600 jobs since the pandemic began and Illawarra gaining 2800.
The Business NSW figures, which are still based on the ABS data, show Sydney losing 109,000 jobs, only four times as many as Newcastle, even though it is 18 times bigger and has had far more recent COVID cases.
Using its moving average, which is designed to flatten out the spikes and dips of monthly stats, Business NSW estimates the Newcastle and Lake Macquarie jobless rate is 9.2 per cent.
The ABS has also been publishing "experimental" tax office payroll data which conflicts wildly with its job survey results.
These figures flip the picture and place the Hunter region as one of the best-performing areas in the country when it comes to jobs.
The ABS says Newcastle shed almost 8 per cent of its payroll jobs between mid-March and April 18, but this has now rebounded to just 1.2 per cent, or almost parity.
It's a similar story in the rest of the Hunter, where payroll jobs are down only 1.6 per cent since March.
This compares with a 3.7 per cent drop in NSW and 7.3 per cent fall in second-wave Victoria.
The payroll jobs fall of between 1 and 2 per cent is at odds with the labour force survey, which suggests 28,000 Hunter residents have lost work since March, an 8.5 per cent drop in employment.
Even accounting for different data sets and methodologies, the numbers don't add up.
So what do we know? We know that both sets of data are trending, on very different trajectories, towards normality since the economy opened back up in June. That, at least, is good news.
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