Are we getting back to work?

Unemployment is at its lowest for three years. Does this signal a resurgence in the job market or is it just that people are emigrating or joining one of the Government’s job schemes?

Firstcom first served: Dan Silverlock at his new job. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Firstcom first served: Dan Silverlock at his new job. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Sat, Dec 7, 2013, 01:00

Reports of Ireland’s unemployment level reaching its lowest level for more than three years has been greeted as further evidence that the economy is stabilising. But accurately measuring unemployment can be tricky, as can extracting significant conclusions from such figures.

One gauge is the Quarterly National Household Survey, the internationally recognised standard that provides a national average of unemployment four times a year. The other is the Live Register, which is primarily a monthly administrative count of those registering for statutory entitlements and is not designed to measure unemployment.

This week the Central Statistics Office reported that 25,770 fewer people are on the Live Register compared with a year ago and that 38,060 fewer are on it compared with the year previously, giving a standardised rate of unemployment of 12.5 per cent. Last month the household survey indicated that unemployment stood at 12.8 per cent in the third quarter of 2013.

Although these two methods assess different data, the insight they provide is limited. Neither can tell us the number of people shifting in and out of work, for example, while factors such as educational programmes and emigration can exaggerate findings. So how genuine is this drop in unemployment? And does it provide a credible springboard to meet Enda Kenny’s hopes of seeing it dip below 10 per cent by 2016?

“Behind the figures there are many stories,” says Bríd O’Brien of the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed. Among several factors that she sees contributing to the fall in the Live Register are people enrolling in activation programmes such as community employment schemes, Fás courses, Back to Education and JobBridge – though she adds that these account for an improvement of just 3,018 on last year.

There are also people who are not making the transition from jobseeker’s benefit to jobseeker’s allowance and, of course, those who are finding work.

“Some of that work would be short-term or part-time, however, so in terms of people finding full-time sustainable, decent work, that’s still a bit thin on the ground,” says O’Brien. “We also can’t assume that any increase in jobs is necessarily serving the long-term unemployed. There is a lot of movement where people are going straight from one job to another.”

One thing that O’Brien is cautious about is the household-survey sample. Until the fourth quarter is completed next year and its survey base changes, she says, we can’t make definitive statements about the sustainability of employment increases.

How people describe themselves on the survey is also a significant issue, particularly when it comes to explaining the rise of 25,000 in agricultural employment over the past year.

“Some people in rural Ireland who may have identified themselves as construction workers in the past may also have had farms in their family and now identify themselves as working in farming. Similarly, even if you have only worked three hours in the last week and see yourself as unemployed, you’re counted as employed.

“The other thing is that some figures could have been boosted by tourism. The Gathering brought huge numbers of people into the country, creating job opportunities and activities. But we won’t see until next year whether this increase is real or how much of it is due to statistical blips.”

Emigration is primarily responsible for the number of under-25s on the Live Register dropping below 60,000 for the first time since 2008, says James Doorley of the National Youth Council of Ireland. He points to a recent study by University College Cork that found that 47 per cent of Irish people were employed in full-time jobs before emigrating – 13 per cent worked in part-time roles – so freeing up positions in the domestic labour market when they left.

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