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Professor Geraint Johnes

Latest labour market statistics provides a dose of good news all around.

Authors: Professor Geraint Johnes

16 April 2014

This morning's release of the latest labour market statistics provides a dose of good news all around. The unemployment rate has fallen below 7%, and earnings are rising at 1.9% over the year. The rate of earnings growth is particularly pronounced in manufacturing, where it is 2.8%, possibly reflecting the onset of skills shortages. In finance and business services, meanwhile, earnings have grown at only 0.3%, possibly reflecting in part the decline of bonuses.

The detailed data still paint a more nuanced picture. Take productivity as an example. Output per job rose by 1.3% over the year to quarter 4 in 2013. This is a marked improvement on the 0.5% achieved the previous quarter, and certainly better than the declining productivity that was still being experienced in the first quarter of last year. However, improvement in output per hour has been considerably less impressive. This was still falling as recently as the third quarter of last year. The final quarter figures are a little more encouraging (suggesting 0.7% growth on a year earlier), but remain fairly muted.

Another aspect of the labour market which has been interesting in recent years is the dramatic rise of self-employment. Between December-February and the previous quarter, self-employment rose by some 146000, and the total now stands at more than 4.5 million. The latest figure represents a 7.1% change over the year. Self-employed workers now comprise 14.8% of the workforce. We know that much of the increase in self-employment has taken place amongst older demographic groups, and it remains unclear how much of the rise is due to entrepreneurial development as opposed to people running out of labour market options. Clearly more research is needed on this.

In sum, therefore, the statistics are encouraging. But the labour market is clearly changing rapidly, and an exclusive focus on the headline metrics risks being more than usually misleading.