Most indicators thus far in 2013 have suggested the recovery, such as it is, weakened compared with the second half of last year. That gave cause to fear the turnaround in the jobs market that began in the middle of 2012 would run out of puff in 2013.
In that context, yesterday’s employment figures were not only relief, but surprisingly good. In the first three months of the year, job numbers increased on the previous three months. It was the third consecutive quarter of growth, something that has not happened since 2007.
24,000 jobs returned
After a peak-to-trough fall of almost 330,000 in net employment, 24,000 jobs have been clawed back since the low point in the second quarter of 2012.
It is true that, at the current rate, it will take a decade for employment levels to return to bubble-era peaks, but that there is any growth at all is a positive given the headwinds facing the economy.
There is also a concern that because employment changes happen more slowly than changes in economic activity – hiring and firing workers takes time – the effects of weaker growth have yet to feed through to the labour market.
All that said, and with some important caveats about the details of the numbers, the shake-out in the labour market looks to be finished for the most part, with the exception of the public sector.
The fact that much of the increase in employment is accounted for by part-timers has been disparaged by many, and for those who need more hours it is plainly unsatisfactory, but keeping people working in any form is important. The longer you are out of work the less chance you have of getting back to work.
As is widely recognised at home and by those observing Irish employment from abroad, keeping people engaged with the labour market is crucial to ensure the 180,000 people who have been out of work for more than one year have a chance of a job.
There was some good news from yesterday’s figures in this regard. Not only is the long-term rate of unemployment falling, but the numbers of students hit an all-time high in the first quarter, when 427,000 adults were studying. That amounts to an increase of 60,000 on five years ago and suggests more people are investing in their futures. That will improve the quality of the labour force and make more people more employable.
Legion of aged
Another record was set in the first quarter: more than 400,000 people in the State classified themselves as retired. Given the 300,000 threshold was passed as recently as 2007, the speed with which the ranks of pensioners is swelling is startling. Supporting the expanding legions of the aged who have not made provision for their autumn years is just one more reason to ensure that as many working-age adults as possible get back to work.