Today’s employment figures – behind the headlines

November 14th, 2012

The rather dully named ‘Labour Market Statistics, November 2012’ was released by the Office for National statistics today which stated that “The unemployment rate for July to September 2012 was 7.8 per cent of the economically active population, down 0.2 from April to June 2012. There were 2.51 million unemployed people, down 49,000 from April to June 2012.” So in a nutshell things are getting better. Well this depends on how you define better. It is certainly an encouraging sign that the economy is starting to move in the right direction, albeit slowly.

What about the detail? For as you know that is where the devil is. Well the problem is the unemployed are not a homogeneous lump. This may well be a surprise to those who have imbibed too much Tory rhetoric on the evils of the work shy benefit claiming who are ramping up our national debt.

For example, the ‘claimant count’ or those on JSA has reached 1.582 million, the highest since July. This worrying includes rises in those who have been claiming in excess of 24 months for all age groups from 1.25 million in September to 1.32 million last month. The data tables can be accessed here.

For a more accessible interpretation of the data sets, the Guardian has an easily digestible summary.  They point to increases in long term unemployment (defined as out of work in excess of a year) and the rise of those undertaking part time and temporary employment (aka underemployment).

What does this say about the state of our economy? Firstly, it undermines claims that ‘we are all in this together’. This is a country which is increasingly divided by inequitable patterns of wealth distribution. In practice this means that segments of the population are locked in to a vicious cycle of long term employment punctuated by short periods of insecure work. This has ramifications not only for those individuals themselves but their families and the communities they live in as well as throwing up associated issues in areas such as housing. Further, national statistics often obscure the extent to which these problems are regional in nature.

Rising to the unemployment challenge requires more than economic growth and slashing benefits. It will require targeted regional investment, especially in apprenticeship schemes. Central government has a significant role to play in creating incentives for companies to create well-structured apprenticeships and other schemes that will lead to long term work. When addressing youth unemployment, much more can be done to improve the link between our schooling system and work to ease the transition for young people leaving education.

Rises in employment figures will always be of comfort and more so when we are in the middle of an economic slump. Despite, this we must not allow a return to pre-recession levels of employment to let us forget the long term unemployed and those in insecure work. Unemployment and underemployment are tests that will outlast this recession but are no less important for it.