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Happy to be of service to Australia’s jobs growth

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So much for our ailing economy. Did you see that 264,000 additional jobs have been created in the first eight months of this year, with 88 per cent of them full-time?

That’s a remarkable increase of 2.2 per cent in total employment, according to trend figures issued by the Australian Bureau of Statistics this week.

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Where did all those jobs come from? We won’t know for certain for a week or two, but I can tell you now: not from agriculture, the production of goods (mining, manufacturing, utilities and construction) or the distribution of goods (transport, postal and warehousing; wholesale and retail trade), but from household and business services.

How can I be sure all the net increase in jobs will have come from the services sector? Because that’s been the case for about the past 40 years.

This isn’t all that surprising. As the reserve bank’s head of economic analysis, Dr Alexandra Heath, observed in a speech last week, one of the most pronounced changes in the structure of our economy [and all advanced economies] has been its move away from a goods-producing economy towards a more services-oriented economy.

This isn’t because we’re producing fewer goods – we aren’t – but because the growth in our production of services has been much faster.

“Australians are producing more services, consuming more services and trading more services with other economies than ever before,” Heath says.

One reason for the shift to a services-based economy is that Australian households have experienced remarkable growth in their real incomes, she says.

Illustration: Glen Le Lievre Illustration: Glen Le Lievre 

We’ve had uninterrupted growth for more than 25 years, and real income per household has more than doubled since the early 1960s.

“As incomes rise,” she says, “households typically spend more of their income on household services – such as health, education and restaurant meals – than on goods.”

Wage growth is fueling a serviced sector boom Wage growth is fueling a serviced sector boom Photo: Monkey Business Images

But demand for business services – that is, businesses providing services to other businesses – has seen its share of gross value-added grow from less than 20 per cent in the early 1990s to more than 25 per cent today.

The category includes professional and technical services; information, media and telecoms; rental, hiring and real estate; and financial and insurance services.

There’s been a shift towards occupations requiring higher-level cognitive skills such as systems analysis, persuasion, originality, written expression, complex problem solving and critical thinking

Part of this growth is just the reclassification of existing activity from goods to services as businesses that produce and distribute goods have increasingly outsourced non-core activities to specialist providers in the services sector.

The trend to outsourcing has been encouraged by technological advance that’s lowered the cost of communication and logistics (moving things around) and meant that the scope and complexity of what can be outsourced have increased over time.

(Though, in my humble opinion, firms that outsource their telephone answering to overseas call centres where people you can’t understand repeat scripted lines regardless of the context, and have little power to fix your problem because the firm back in Oz doesn’t really trust them, will one day reap the customer revenge they so richly deserve.)

It should involve cost savings to outsourcing firms because specialist providers are able to achieve greater economies of scale and pass some of the benefits on to their customers.

So outsourcing is an example of one of the key building blocks of our modern prosperity: ever-greater specialisation and exchange, leading to ever-greater productivity. (This ought to be true when profit-driven businesses do it; it’s not always true when governments do it badly or with ulterior motives.)

But outsourcing doesn’t explain all the growth in business services. Some of those services are totally new.

And Heath says there’s evidence that the nature of the work being done in the business services sector is generally changing faster than in other sectors. “This all suggest that business services are at the centre of how technological change is transforming the Australian economy,” she says.

Traditional business services, such as accounting and legal, have been joined by management consulting, internet providers and computer system design.

The growth in outsourcing of business services, and the increasing integration of business services with other sectors of the economy, fit with evidence that “supply chains” are getting longer. That is, there’s an increasing number of stages through which goods and services pass.

Not surprisingly, the goods production sector is the most fragmented – has the longest supply chain – because it uses the most “intermediate” inputs to produce its final products.

Research suggests that the reorganisation of production associated with the lengthening of supply chains has led to a shift towards more high-skilled labour, Heath says.

There’s growing evidence that advances in computer technology have helped drive a shift from routine to non-routine jobs, creating new jobs as well as making others obsolete.

The share of people employed in the business services sector has almost doubled over the past 50 years, to be about 20 per cent of the workforce. Most of this growth has been in “non-routine cognitive” jobs, as you’d expect when computerisation is an important driver.

(Similar forces are working in the household services sector – all those extra doctors, teachers and academics – although it has also seen a significant increase in demand for non-routine manual jobs.)

If you look more directly at the types of skills and abilities required in the business services sector you see that, since the mid-1990s, there’s been a shift towards occupations requiring higher-level cognitive skills such as systems analysis, persuasion, originality, written expression, complex problem solving and critical thinking.

Heath concludes that the business services sector “has played a key role in the way the economy has responded to technological progress.

“In the process, business services have become more important, more specialised and more integrated with other sectors. There is some evidence that this has been associated with higher productivity growth.”

Figures from the labour market “also support the idea that business services industries are at the heart of how technological change is transforming the structure of the economy”.

Ross Gittins is the Sydney Morning Herald’s economics editor.

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