With the Australian unemployment rate taking economists by surprise and recording an unexpected drop in January from 5.8 to 5.7 per cent seasonally adjusted, something equally unexpected has been going on in Tasmania where the state’s unemployment rate has fallen to the second lowest rate in the country and a five and a half year low, at 5.6 per cent seasonally adjusted.
New South Wales remained the strongest performing job market in the country at 5 per cent, followed by Tasmania at 5.6 per cent, Victoria at 5.7 per cent, Queensland at 6.3 per cent, South Australia at 6.4 per cent and Western Australia at 6.5 per cent.
So what exactly is going on in Tasmania, a state that has typically lagged behind the larger states on jobs, to fuel this improvement in their overall employment rate? The devil is always in the detail, and whilst Tasmania has one of the lowest participation rates (the number of people available for work, actively looking for work) in the country at 59.6 per cent, it has also always been traditionally low. As a result, it is difficult to determine whether people have really given up looking for work as some would suggest or whether the declining participation rate is simply a reflection of an aging population in Tasmania.
What we do know is that historically it has always been low when compared to other states as well and so this current unemployment level should be really be considered with a positive glass half full mind set rather than a glass half empty approach.
The monthly pattern of jobs growth in Tasmania is also similar to the trends we are seeing nationally with higher part time jobs growth. In the state overall, jobs rose by 1,500, made up of a loss of 1,600 full time jobs and an increase of 3,100 part-time jobs. The Australian Bureau of Statistics differentiates full-time and part-time jobs based on the number of hours worked rather than the nature of the employment contract. So, with employers increasingly engaging in more flexible work arrangements, this monthly seesawing that has been going on between full-time and part-time jobs growth for a couple of years now is more likely to paint a picture of cautious jobs investment from employers rather than any dimmer picture of jobs in Tasmania.
Whilst discussing his government’s budget in May 2015, Tasmania’s Premier Will Hodgman said “If you wear a Hi-Vis vest, we want you, and your family, living and working in Tasmania.”
This was in direct reference to the government’s plan to increase the amount of infrastructure investment in Tasmania in order to drive jobs growth and if we look at the decline in unemployment since then and the corresponding increase in the level investment in construction and infrastructure projects in the state, it would appear at face value that the Tasmanian government is delivering on his promise.
Following on from this commitment in 2015, the 2016/17 Tasmanian State Budget included $1.8 billion over four years in infrastructure projects across all regions of the state. This included $656 million in roads and bridges over four years and $114.8 million over four years for rail infrastructure, $114.4 million to revitalise schools, colleges and TAFES, $57.2 million for the redevelopment of the Royal Hobart Hospital, $30 million for the Northern Cities Major Development Initiative and a further $17.7 in other infrastructure projects. And there are already calls for further infrastructure investment from the surplus predicted for this year’s budget.
Add to this the increase that was from $10,000 to $20,000 in the First Home Owners Grant Scheme designed to improve housing supply and affordability, and you can’t help but be optimistic about the next few years for jobs in the construction and building industries in the Apple Isle.
This increase in investment is also fulling demand for those “Workers in Hi-Vis vests” that Hodgman wanted, with demand for skilled workers in the Tasmanian construction sector mirroring demand across the entire country where project engineers and drafting engineers are in the highest demand followed by contract management, estimating, foreperson/supervisor, health and safety and environmental management personnel the most sought after by the industry.
The one black mark seems to be the Tasmanian youth unemployment rate (15-24 year olds) which is stubbornly still more than seven percentage points higher than the state average, creating plenty of opportunity based on planned infrastructure growth for organisations to invest in more apprenticeships and traineeships.