November jobs figures: Not much news is good news – but signs that women and young people are losing out as recruitment slows

Blog posts

12 Nov 2019

Tony Wilson

Tony Wilson, Institute Director

On the face of it, today’s jobs figures point to a quiet month in the labour market. Employment is holding steady at close to 76%, unemployment remains at a record low of 3.8%, while economic inactivity – those neither looking nor available for work – is also broadly unchanged.  On earnings, growth remains fairly strong at 3.6% but has dropped back a bit from the 4% growth over the summer.  As a consequence, ‘real’ pay remains just below its pre-recession peaks.

After the big falls in employment reported last month, today’s figures could be seen as pretty good news.  As ever though, there are a number of stories beneath the headlines.  Three in particular stand out.

First, after seven years’ of uninterrupted growth, employment for women has stopped growing and in recent months has fallen – by close to 100 thousand over the last quarter.  This appears to be being driven by employers responding to a tight labour market (i.e. low unemployment) but continued economic uncertainty by increasing hours rather than taking on more staff. 

As a consequence, part-time employment has fallen significantly (down by 160 thousand), while full-time work is up by over 100 thousand.  Women make up three quarters of those working part time but just under two-fifths of those working full time – so unsurprisingly, when hours increase, women lose out.  There are further signs of this in employment of over-65s, another group far more likely to work part-time – with employment dropping back by 50 thousand on the quarter.

By coincidence, the Labour Party last week set out plans to strengthen the ‘right to request’ flexible working, so that the default would be to grant this unless an employer could demonstrate that this was unsuitable for the role.  This attracted some negative headlines, although the Conservative MP Helen Whately introduced a very similar Private Members Bill over the summer.  As we said at the time, there is a very strong case for exploring this further.

Secondly, employment has fallen back for young people (down by 100 thousand on the quarter).  In part this reflects the same shift towards full-time employment, but as I wrote last month young people also lose out when recruitment slows – and today’s figures see a further fall in vacancies, now down by 60 thousand (or 7%) on the levels reported last year.  Of most concern, employment of young people not in education has fallen by 90 thousand on the last quarter, with now one million young people neither in full-time education nor in work.

Thirdly, in more positive news, the employment rate for disabled people has risen significantly over the last year – up by 2.0 percentage points to 53.2%.  This is faster than the rate of growth for non-disabled people, and the ‘gap’ in employment rates has therefore narrowed – by 1.6 percentage points.  Nonetheless the gap remains huge, at 28.6%, and even at this rate of progress would take eighteen years to close.

Overall, employment was never going to loom large in this election and today’s final figures before polling day will have done little to change that.  However with continued employer uncertainty, declining recruitment and signs that women, young people and the most disadvantaged may be losing out, the next government will have plenty of work to do.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.