Is this graduate employment downturn different to the early 1990s recession?

The experience of graduates from the early 1990s recession suggests that a slow career start isn’t necessarily fatal to long-term prospects. Employers seem willing to consider graduates who haven’t managed to quickly find employment. But this doesn’t rule out more pessimistic interpretations of recent graduate employment surveys.

There are several reasons why this might be the case. There could be some structural changes in the economy that reduce the quantity of or slow growth in professional jobs, to which graduates typically aspire. For example, there could be greater automation of tasks previously done by professionals, or more outsourcing to countries with lower labour costs. Or professional job growth could stay around its long-term trend, but the number of graduates increases more quickly.

The slide below shows the long-term trend in the number of jobs classed as professional. Annual growth is volatile, but I can’t see a structural slowdown. 2013 showed relatively low growth, which might help explain why that was a bad year for graduate outcomes compared to the immediately preceding years. But 2014 was a good mid-range result, with an estimated 85,000 additional professional jobs.

Prof employment
Source: ABS.

Completion numbers show less volatile growth than job numbers, but multi-year comparisons suggest that they are not (to date) growing at a much stronger rate than professional employment. However, new graduates are not the only flow into the graduate labour market. Existing graduates move in and out of the labour force, and there is migration, both from new migrants and expatriates returning to Australia. Permanent skilled migration in recent times has included 32,000 to 39,000 professionals a year, although there are larger numbers here on temporary visas.

From the ABS Education and Work survey and its predecessors we can construct a time series of graduates in professional and managerial jobs, both as a percentage of all graduates and of graduates with jobs. The slide is below. The trend is affected by occupational definitions, and is most meaningful within the periods in which a reasonably consistent classification system was used. Unfortunately Education and Work 2014 has some results that are hard to believe. I think they have over-sampled people with postgraduate qualifications and under-sampled people with bachelor degrees, and as a result the employment result is biased upwards. But the bias would not be large enough to turn the slight decline in graduate managerial and professional employment shown in the slide into a large decline.

managerial and professional jonbs
Sources: ABS here and here.

The way Education and Work is conducted means that it would not show any fast consequences of a deteriorating new graduate labour market. The number of new bachelor-degree completions in 2013 was only about 5 per cent of the stock of professional jobs. Also, Education and Work is done as part of the broader labour force survey. Respondents to that survey are on an eight month cycle, with an eighth leaving the survey and being replaced each month. As Education and Work is conducted in May, only some of the people being captured as un- or under-employed in March or April by the Graduate Destination Survey could have been included.

Another issue is whether the Graduate Destination Survey, in investigating the employment situation of graduates so soon after completion, has always painted an overly-pessimistic picture of outcomes. Although many employers have graduate intakes structured around the cycle of university completions, normal economic growth isn’t going to to produce a sudden burst of professional jobs over December to April. It’s more likely that graduates will gradually be absorbed into the workforce.

One way of investigating this is the Beyond Graduation Survey, which looks at graduates three years out. It uses a sub-sample of the original Graduate Destination Survey. The respondents to the Beyond Graduation Survey report better employment outcomes four months out than did the full GDS sample, so the results are likely to biased upwards somewhat. What the slide shows is that full-time employment outcomes are trending downwards three years out for the cohorts that had bad outcomes four months out, for those who were new graduates in early 2009 and early 2010. The drop is about 4.5 percentage points on the peak year, but only 2 percentage points below what new graduates from early 2006 experienced three years out.

Beyond Graduation

The BGS survey also lets us look at job quality. Of those who have full-time jobs, there is only a very small decline in the share of people who have managerial or professional jobs. There is a larger decline in people with full-time managerial or professional jobs as a proportion of all graduates. There has been a shift to full-time study and job searching.

BGS job quality

The Beyond Graduation Survey is the clearest evidence of negative trends beyond the short-term employment outcomes, but the fairly small full-time employment declines the BGS finds are not disastrous. Taken in the context of the other ABS employment data reported in this post there is not yet enough evidence to say that there are major structural issues with graduate employment, although the relevant trend data needs to be watched carefully. The slowing growth in domestic undergraduate commencing student numbers is desirable. But it is still possible that the bad initial employment outcomes of recent years will end up being like the bad job figures of the early 1990s: slow career starts, but not career killers.

  1. Thanks for your very interesting series of posts.

    Do you think the ‘scarring’ of early 1990s graduates could have been hidden by the subsequent strong period of economic growth and employment growth in the Australian economy in the mid 90s and 2000s. I am just wondering whether today’s graduates will have as conducive an environment to find good jobs in following this graduate employment downturn?

    • Nick – It wasn’t until 2003 that the overall unemployment rate started to be consistently lower than it is now, so arguably the whole 1990s were affected by the recession at the start of the decade.

      On the other hand, I do think that the middle years of last decade were a good time to be a graduate compared to now: student numbers were artificially held down by government, while economic conditions were as good as they had been in a generation.

      Even if student places are recapped, it will be at a much higher level. And no current information suggests a return to highly favourable economic conditions.

  2. Hi Andrew. Is it possible to show how much of the downward trend in FT employment (shown in the chart Bachelor-graduates full-time employment rates) is attributable to unemployment, part-time employment, under-employment and further study? Most of the results on the bottom three charts look rather flat and the slight downward trends may be attributable to the trend towards graduate education.

    • Peter – For the 2006 cohort in 2010 compared to the the 2010 cohort in 2013:

      Studying full-time: up 2 percentage points.
      Unemployed: Up 1.4 percentage points.
      Working part-time: Up .6 of a percentage point.

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