What Do the ONS Statistics Tell Us?

16/09/2013 12:37 BST | Updated 13/11/2013 10:12 GMT

The recently published Labour Market Statistics published by the ONS (Office for National Statistics) make interesting reading. They tell us that the number of workforce jobs rose by 168,000 in the last quarter (May to July) which represents an increase of 0.5%. If the comparison is with twelve months ago we find that there are now 334,000 more jobs which is a one per cent increase.

As is to be expected, politicians use the data to tell whichever story they believe will suit their agenda. That is to be expected. However, in the usual spate of headline grabbing and spats the finer detail tends to be forgotten. After all, who wants to plough through the pages of statistics and data produced by the ONS apart from people who are interested in trying to spot trends and I happily acknowledge that this includes me.

What has largely been ignored in the celebration of additional jobs being created is that the overall number would have been far higher had it not been for the 'contribution' of self-employment which dipped by 46,000 over the quarter and 40,000 over the last twelve months. This suggests that the belief that we are increasingly becoming a nation of entrepreneurial go-getters who are not dependent on regular wages and salaries is not as true as some, especially those on the right wing of politics, would like us to believe. To be fair, according to the ONS there are still well over 4 million people who earn their living through being self-employed.

Undoubtedly the fact that the national rate of unemployment fell by 0.1% to 7.7% of the 'economically active population' was the big story and has allowed the coalition government and George Osborne, in particular, to tell us that the worst effects of the chaos caused by the hubris of the bankers is over. However, the regional picture tells a more diverse story. Though there are three regions where unemployment has decreased (Wales, -0.4%, South East, -0.7%, London, -0.2% and the East Midlands, -0.5%) four others have experienced increases; Scotland, the West Midlands and the North East all going up by 0.3% and the North West going up by 0.4%.

Though no region has a higher overall rate of unemployment than 10.4% (the North East), it is possible to find areas or pockets where the rate is well in excess of 50%. For people in these areas there is a probably a sense that the recovery is by bypassing them though there are a variety of reasons for their inability to secure work. That said there is an argument that the regions in which unemployment is highest are those where the decline of traditional industries has been most acutely felt.

Clearly the mantra "We're all in it together," seems hollow though I cannot say I have heard it recently. It is worth noting that whilst the number of men in work is virtually the same as five years ago (15.95 million), the composition of full and part-time has altered significantly. There are now 13.85 million men who are employed full-time which is a fall of 272,000 million. This is almost the same as to the number of men who are now working part-time (2.10 million), a rise of 281,000.

Though there are now more women in work than five years ago, 13.89 million, which is a rise of 318,000. However, whilst the number of women who are employed full-time has gone up by 39,000 to 7.94 million, the increase in women employed part-time has been far greater; up by 279,000 to reach 5.95 million.

As the ONS notes, there are 1.45 million people who work part-time not out of personal choice but because they cannot secure full-time work. The ONS data shows that almost a third of men who are in a paid job (employed) or are self-employed work part-time because of their inability to fine full-time work.

Given that the rate of inflation (Consumer Prices Index) is still around 2.8%, the fact that average pay (excluding bonuses) has gone up by one per cent means that standards of living for the majority in work will have declined. The 'feelgood' factor will, I believe, be a key factor in deciding the outcome of the next election. Though the economy is improving and, in general, people are now less fearful of the effects of recession, they want to know when they can look forward to being better times on a personal level.

Perhaps the most interesting data to emerge from the ONS statistics is precisely where the 168,000 jobs which have been created in the last quarter have been created. This may tell us where economic activity is (or is not) occurring. There have been respective increases of 74,000 and 50,000 jobs in 'Administrative and Support Service Activities' and 'Real Estate Activities'. Given that jobs in manufacturing have increased by only 11,000 (and are down by 15,000 on a year ago), it is possible to see that there is a continuing shift away from traditional industries which, largely, involve making tangible products that can be sold domestically or exported.

The ONS contains a wealth of information which provides glimpses of the way in which this country is changing. The labour market is shifting in a way that allows us to respond to the needs of the world around us. Probably the most important thing is that creative minds continue to develop the ideas that will result in high value jobs either making innovative products or in providing excellent services to customers. Recent headlines suggest that five years on from the global financial crisis we appear to have forgotten that investing in property development is a sustainable way to grow the economy. Surely you think we'd have learnt our lesson?