Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Mining jobs: not much of a boom and not much of a bust?

Sections of the media, plenty of politicians and much of the commentariat have fallen into a lazy habit of bemoaning “the end of the mining jobs boom” or the “the resources bust.” Sure, these are big, capital intensive, high dollar value export industries for Australia when they’re firing, but the employment contribution of mining wasn’t what you might have been led to believe.

These two graphs show the various industries and the numbers employed in them, back from the mid 1980s until the latest figures (May 2016).  First, the Australian story. Mining I’ve highlighted in the thick red line. It trundles along the bottom. For more than twenty years this was pretty much our smallest employer. You can see the increase related to the resources boom, peaking in around 2012, and the decline since then. Even at its all time peak, mining remained one of our smallest employers. (Click on the graph to enlarge).

What about the engineering and construction industries, which relied heavily on mining? In the graph above, the thick green line (for ‘professional, scientific and technical services) includes engineers, and the bright blue represents construction. No calamity there.  

The big growth in jobs (mostly part time or casual) has been the health care and social services sector (dashed blue line above). It’s gone from third to being our largest industry employer in the period since the mid 80s. In that same time, manufacturing (thick purple in the graph) has gone from being the largest employer to sixth largest. But it’s still our sixth largest, and streets ahead of the mining sector. Why are we so downbeat on manufacturing and so preoccupied with mining? 

The relativities don’t seem to justify the weight of attention that’s given to job losses in mining when at the same time we seem to have written off manufacturing, despite it remaining a very large employer, currently up there with education, professionals and tourism and well ahead of finance and insurance industries.

So what about the States that have been more dependent on the resources sector? The graph below shows the same story, over the same period, but for resource rich Queensland. The mining ‘boom’ and the mining ‘bust’, compared with other industries and the jobs they account for, seem unremarkable in the wider industry context.

As with the rest of the country, health care related industries are both fast growing and now our largest employer. Manufacturing (bright green in this graph) is close to a tie for fifth spot, but still well ahead of the mining sector. Construction (thick pale blue) may have been pulled down with mining but for the time being is showing a positive bounce. How long that lasts is another thing. 

The point being in both these graphs is that the evidence doesn’t appear to support excuses about lost mining jobs being the cause of poor economic performance (although some regions have felt the impact much more sharply). Nor do they seem to support the general air of policy abandonment which seems to greet mention of manufacturing. Both of which run counter to the general flavour of mainstream commentary. 

I am not for a minute suggesting that the mining downturn hasn't hurt people and hurt particular regions and some industries. But it's also important to keep things in perspective. Next time you read something about the extent of job losses attributed to the mining boom, look carefully for references to other industries, so that the facts are kept in perspective and be very wary of percentage changes if coming off small bases. 

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