Thursday, 10 May 2018

Unemployment strikes selectively (revisited)

A reader looked at the cyclical pattern of unemployment by ethnicity which I posted about the other day ('Unemployment doesn't strike evenly') - Maori and Pacific people fare unusually badly in downturns and require a long spell of labour market strength before their unemployment rates get back down closer to those for European and and Asian people - and asked me if the same pattern applied by education level.

You'd think the same pattern would apply for less qualified people compared to more qualified people, but off the top of my head I couldn't recall whether our labour market data included educational qualifications. The good news is yes, they do, but the bad news is that they don't go very far back in time (they start in the middle of 2013).

Here's what's available. To keep it manageable I've just picked out three levels of qualification: post-grad, the better end of a secondary school qualification, and no qualification at all. If you're interested in more detail, head for Infoshare and have a fossick: go to 'Work, income and spending', then 'Household Labour Force Survey', and then 'Labour force status by highest qualification'.

Unfortunately there isn't a big enough cycle going on over this time period to see what happens to the less qualified in recessions: all we know (which anyone would have guessed beforehand) is that those with the highest qualifications have the lowest unemployment rate.

In the US, though, we can see a longer picture of cyclical history: here's what's happened to those at the top of the educational ladder (adults with a PhD) and those at the bottom (adults with less than one year of high school). The shaded areas are recessions. Again you can get more detail for yourself from the excellent (and free) FRED database.

You do indeed get the same pattern happening as for ethnicity. Those who find it hardest to get work in good times also get hit far worse in bad times, but if the labour market stays strong enough for long enough, even those with no formal qualifications at all will start finding jobs. Remarkably, the unemployment rate in the US for those with no qualifications is now down to under 5% - but it's taken the longest peacetime expansion on record to get it down to those levels.

Policy lesson: no matter how you cut it, the groups with less going for them suffer disproportionately when the economy turns down. 


  1. Hi Donal,
    see the 'discontinued' series on Infoshare - isn't that what oyu're after?
    Michael Fletcher

  2. Thank Heavens for people who know their way around the stats better than I do!

    Yup, getting Infoshare to show discontinued series worked just like you said. I'll be posting (again...) in a mo


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