On the face of it, the latest regional job figures look reassuring, especially given the teeth of this pandemic have not entirely loosened their grip.
Labour force data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics last month shows the number of people in work is rising in the Ballarat area.
For April, there were 81,900 people recorded as actively employed in the Ballarat region - an area which, it should be stated goes wider than the local government area. Hearteningly, it is getting back to pre-COVID-19 levels, although not there yet.
However, a little probing of those statistics tells a more uncomfortable story. Compared to Bendigo and Geelong, the two obvious regional benchmarks, Ballarat's labour force is returning at a more sluggish rate. Both the two other cities have rebounded to higher levels than they had in March last year.
Off the back of those statistics, The Courier has approached experts and interested parties about what the data can tell us. How do we interpret it? Can we in fact draw any meaningful conclusions from it? How concerned should we be about unemployment?
We spoke to Dr Kim Houghton of the Regional Australia Institute, the economist and data expert Dr Paul McPhee of Federation University as well as the mayor Cr Daniel Moloney and the chief executive of the Committee for Ballarat Michael Poulton.
These are the main sources we have:
JOB VACANCY RATES
Openly published by the federal government on the Labour Market Information Portal, these statistics are given a lot of importance by Dr Houghton."It gives a good indication of what the private sector is doing and what jobs they are actually looking for," he told The Courier.
Vacancy rates across regional areas are showing a huge spike, a clear indication companies are recruiting. But there are also shortcomings including that they are not published with details about the total workforce available. The total vacancy rate in Ballarat and the Central Highlands was recorded as 993, up from 410 in April last year. Yet when you look at Bendigo and the High Country, an area that instinctively you would feel would be around the same size, the numbers are much higher. It had 3290 vacancies in April, up from 1353 year on year.
There is also the possibility the vacancies are a symptom of other issues with the workforce - including a lack of relevant skills in the workplace. Dr Houghton said: "I think it's employers having to turn to the internet for jobs which they would normally be trying to fill locally.
"Typically around 40 to 50 per cent of jobs are not advertised in a regional place, they're often filled through word of mouth or networks, so I think employers are having to cast the net wider, that's why the vacancy numbers are so high."
Introduced in response to the pandemic, the idea of these is to give a more "real time" picture of what is happening in the jobs market. The idea is simple, it works by recording how many people have been paid through the payroll system, which accounts for the vast majority of workers.
In terms of where Ballarat is compared to when the pandemic started, the most trend is positive across all the cities, with now at 100.1 per cent of where it was in mid March last year, Bendigo at 100.2 per cent and Geelong at 101 per cent - with Ballarat catching up from being slightly down in previous weeks and months. The caveat is these figures go up to May 22, so will not show the impact of the latest lockdown.
Dr Houghton does not believe the statistics are particularly insightful - and it's true it is hard to draw any conclusions. Shortcomings include the fact each job is counted separately so do not reflect the effect of those working multiple jobs (around 6.3 per cent of the population the figures show) and will not reflect any rise in unemployment.
That vacancy rate co-exists with unemployment, and that's a travesty. It shows us there's a pool of people who are unemployed, and stay unemployed and that's all about closing those gapsDr Kim Houghton, Regional Australia Institute
Almost certainly the most concerning among the most recent statistics was the unemployment rate in the Ballarat region, which is tracking higher than in Bendigo - and substantially above levels in Geelong.
The unemployment rate - evened out to 12-month moving average stands at 6.5 per cent in Ballarat - compared to five per cent in Bendigo and 4.2 per cent in Geelong.
There was unanimity among everyone who spoke to The Courier that this was the most concerning aspect of what is happening in Ballarat.
Mr Poulton said: "Unemployment and underemployment are a key measure of a thriving and vibrant community.
"As a city that wants to present itself as one of possibilities, a place that inspires innovation and courage, is caring and compassionate, we must respond by creating the environment that drives employment higher and unemployment lower."
Dr Houghton said the vacancy rates told a depressing tale.
"That co-exists with unemployment, and that's a travesty," he said. "It shows us there's a pool of people who are unemployed, and stay unemployed and that's all about closing those gaps. For me, it's all about closing those gaps locally. This is not stuff that the jobactive agencies do. They operate in a very different way."
Dr Houghton said it could be a question of the community backing itself, and gives the example of one Tasmanian town that proactively targeted help for a small number families in one suburb, who were identified as long-term unemployed.
"If those unemployment rates don't come down, we've really got to look at what sort of locally based help do these people need," he said.
The proportion of the working age Ballarat population on JobSeeker and youth allowance stands at 8.2 per cent.
The worst affected area in the April statistics is Wendouree and Miners Rest by percentage (11.5 per cent), while the most people on JobSeeker and youth allowance is in the larger statistical area of Ballarat South with 1,797 claimants - the equivalent of 10.8 per cent of the working age population. Buninyong and Alfredton were the two areas with the fewest residents on JobSeeker - 4.1 per cent and 5.3 per cent respectively as of April this year.
This is a point made most strongly by Dr McPhee at Federation University.
"The difficulties interpreting the employment data are that they are not industry sector specific.
"It is difficult to determine what actual sectors and component industries are lagging behind in terms of economic growth. The only way to make a determination would be to use a tool of some sort of economic modelling."
"The modelling is very costly and it takes a long time to put models together. By the time you put a model together and you make comparisons, it could be nine to 12 months after the event.
He said trying to determine policies could prove difficult if the delays were too long. "It's very difficult to get the timing right. You've got to remove that time lag, and that's not always possible, it's so data-intensive.
However, he says it would still be useful, particularly if the employment in Ballarat lagged for a few quarters.
The issue of interpreting data is also acknowledged by Cr Moloney, who says council officers are in the process of collating a wide-ranging economic study using different sources - the details of which he said would be made public next month.
"We're keen to understand a bit more about where the areas of unemployment exist," he said. "There's not only a lack of detail around the data in a live, contemporary way, but there's also not necessarily the ability to respond quickly."
He said options included opening up more land, promote tourism and invest in infrastructure - while the state government could provide more services jobs.
"The challenge is having a lever we can use to respond quickly."
A MORE DIVERSE ECONOMY?
If there is one lesson from the pandemic, it is the vulnerability of being too reliant on one sector - where a city would be shielded by having the most diverse economy possible.
Dr McPhee says firm conclusions are not possible but posits this could be an area where Ballarat lags.
"If we were to model the Geelong economy, we would probably find the Geelong economy has greater structural diversity."
"It may be possible - and this is just guesswork - that a little more stimulation from international students is needed to lift economic growth in the Ballarat region. That's something that further investigation using modelling would be able to determine with a little more certainty."
Mr Poulton meanwhile believes the renewable energy resources around Ballarat will be key for the future economy - and maintains faith in tourism despite the trials of the past 16 months.
Cr Moloney points out that the one of the biggest employment sectors in Ballarat is the health industry, where the job rate would not have been impacted by the pandemic - and believes the job market here is reasonably even throughout the year.
However, he said the question of job diversity had cropped up in community feedback, and that shoring that up would be a feature of the new council plan released later this year.
Dr Houghton said establishing a distinct identity was key to bringing more employers and workers to the city. A recent visitor to Ballarat, he said he sensed a spirit of collaboration: "It's when different people involved in different [areas] work together that a place really starts to kick some goals."
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