The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has released the latest set of job market figures for April to June 2020. The period of study lies wholly within the UK’s movement sanctions
Vacancies saw a slight reversal of the down-trend from last month’s record low.
In fact, recruiters were looking at 10 per cent growth of vacancies since April to June – a welcome silver lining in challenging times.
Despite month-on-month gains, total vacancies were still in a trough compared to previous quarters. With an estimated 370,000 open positions in the UK, that is 274,000 than in February to April. It is also 453,000 fewer than the same period in 2019.
One of the most obvious emerging trends has been a slowdown in numbers of workers entering payrolled positions.
The government’s PAYE receipts indicate that payrolled positions were 730,000 fewer than in the previous quarter. This translates into a 2.5 per cent contraction of the payrolled workforce in the UK.
At the same time, self-employment experienced its single greatest contraction on record. The report finds 4.76 million britons working in self-employment. That equates to 14.5 per cent of all employment. However, this is 238,000 fewer self-employed workers than in the previous quarter.
Unemployment remains a more complex part of job market analysis. For the most part, total rates of unemployment have stayed unchanged throughout lockdown.
Estimated unemployment stood at 1.34 million people for the period of study. Although that is 9,000 more than twelve months earlier, it is 10,000 fewer than the previous quarter.
This data puts the overall UK unemployment rate at 3.9%. This means that unemployment has barely changed when compared to both last year, and the previous quarter
Understanding the data: Economic inactivity
On first glance, the figures appear to tell a conflicting story of increased redundancies, falling employment and vacancies, yet also of steady unemployment. This contradictory picture demands the question – “How is this possible?”
The answer is in the way unemployment is categorised. In fact, many out of work individuals will currently be described as “economically inactive”, rather than unemployed.
Unemployment status requires the individual to have actively sought new employment within the past three weeks. It also requires the individual to be available to begin work within the next two weeks.
With restrictions on movement, furlough schemes, and lockdowns, the vast majority of the newly-redundant will have simply been able to begin a job search.
This is further evidenced in the ONS data: economic inactivity rose by 0.2 per cent in the quarter, to 20.4 per cent of the total working population. Of those economically inactive, 218,000 wished to find employment.
The ONS report features a new expression of work force changes, with its labour market flow. This diagram shows the net flow of people between employment, unemployment, and economic inactivity. This month’s report finds that economic inactivity was the area of net gain by a figure of 7,126. This neat little visualisation gives an at-a-glance account of the data within the period of study.
Earnings growth continued to lag behind the rate of inflation this quarter. Total real-terms earnings contracted by 2.0 per cent on average.
Total actual hours worked dropped in the first half of 2020 by 18.4 per cent. Weekly hours were recorded at just 849.3 million – the lowest since November 1994.
The historic fall in weekly hours work tallies almost exactly we GDP figures, also released this week. The ONS estimates a 20.4 per cent reduction in GDP as the UK officially enters recession.
Although we have often seen how reduced hours can improve efficiency and GDP, the lessons learned from the COVID slowdown demonstrate that this is not always the case.
Job market trends
This month’s figures illustrate a job market that is showing resilience despite extraordinary challenges. It also finds evidence of the market sharing the burden. Small businesses were the primary source of new employment and vacancies in the quarter. Earnings have contracted, yet net unemployment has not skyrocketed – nor has job creation collapsed any further.
There is some evidence to suggest that Britain has therefore now entered the long, up-hill road to recovery – and that its downward trajectory may have come to an end. We will continue to scrutinise official figures in the coming months and seek to better understand the health of the UK jobs market.