Persistently, although mostly in whispers still, economic reports tell us the non-urban portion of the Hunter is suffering economic decline. Quiet messages delivered gently and early on are always the best way to be alert to the future.
But we need to listen.
The latest information for the Hunter comes from the labour force survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
The survey estimates that away from Newcastle and Lake Macquarie around 3000 jobs have been lost during the COVID-19 recession. But this number doesn't include jobs kept alive by the job keeper package, so the full consequences of the pandemic are yet to be known.
The ABS has also released labour force data showing how the rural and township parts of the Hunter are doing across various industries over the past six years. Here we see a continuation of the region's decline in its traditional economic base, including in mining. For the key materials production and processing sectors - agriculture, forestry, mining, manufacturing, electricity, gas and water - total employment is said to have fallen by more than 40 per cent from 33,300 jobs in 2015 to 19,600 jobs in August this year.
A warning, these statistics are estimates based on small samples, so there is significant risk of error. Yet the numbers correspond to what observers see on the ground. Jobs on the land are in long-term decline, manufacturing jobs in the townships - typically small-scale fabrication - are disappearing, the mining sector has peaked, and job losses in electricity generation are underway.
Some industry sectors are doing better, to be sure. One is public administration and safety, up by 5000 jobs which is good news. Government investment in public sector jobs is crucial to the ongoing viability of non-metropolitan townships across Australia.
Another positive is the professional, scientific and technical services sector where jobs are up by 4000 over the past six years, confirmation that private sector employers can access quality professionals in our townships.
Perhaps, post-COVID-19, there will be an acceptance that degreed workers don't need to breathe Sydney's harbourside air to be productive and innovative, that a rolling rural landscape can be as conducive.
Of interest is stand-out jobs performance in the health care and social assistance sector, which grew by 4100 jobs in the past six years to reach a total of 18,400 in August. This sector is now the biggest employer in the Hunter away from Newcastle and Lake Macquarie. We should be watching it more closely for while its growth is welcome, its composition raises concern.
The driver of jobs growth in health and social assistance is new expenditure by the federal government on aged care, disability care and child care, each one in response to community demands for government assistance to the elderly, the disabled and to young families.
Yet rather than build government owned and operated institutions, like in the old days, the federal government chooses to fund private firms to deliver these services. The consequence has been the dramatic rise of part-time and casual jobs offered by private sector providers. Most of these jobs - be they in aged care, disability support or child care - are taken by women with minimal levels of training.
On the one hand, more jobs for women in non-metropolitan areas is obviously a necessary and a good thing. On the other hand, it is worrying that the largest sector in non-metropolitan Hunter is built on casual and part-time work with low labour costs a key element in an operator's business plan.
The care sector raises complex issues for a non-metropolitan region faced with an historic decline of jobs in agriculture and manufacturing and, now, falling job levels in mining, the region's big pay packet generator over the past four decades.
So, the latest labour force survey tells us a bit more of the story of economic change in our region. Next year we will participate in our nation's population and housing census. This will show how demographic change in our region matches its economic change, providing more information to plan our future.
Now the task is to convince our obstinate local politicians - you know their names - that change is underway and we should be well advanced in our response.
Phillip O'Neill is professor of economic geography at Western Sydney University.
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