Australia jobs machine hits overdrive, passes pre-pandemic peak in March

Unemployment dropped to 5.6 per cent, from 5.8 per cent in February. PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - Australian job creation far outstripped forecasts in March as unemployment dropped to a one-year low and the number of people in work surpassed its pre-pandemic peak, a big positive for consumer spending and confidence.

Data on Thursday (April 15) from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) showed 70,700 net new jobs were created in March, double forecasts of a 35,000 gain.

Unemployment dropped to 5.6 per cent, from 5.8 per cent in February, marking a remarkable recovery from the top of 7.5 per cent hit last July when coronavirus lockdowns tipped the economy into recession.

The economy has now recovered all the 878,000 jobs lost to the lockdowns, taking employment up to a record 13.08 million.

Hours worked in March also surged to an all-time high, pointing to strong economic growth for the quarter.

"It suggests that despite repeated brief lockdowns, output is about to surpass its pre-virus level," said Mr Marcel Thieliant, senior Australia economist at Capital Economics.

"With the underemployment rate dropping from 8.5 per cent to a seven-year low of 7.9 per cent and job vacancies far above pre-virus levels, we think employment will keep rising."

The latest jump in jobs will please the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA), which has made full employment a core goal.

The bank has repeatedly emphasised that policy will stay super loose until wages and inflation rise substantially, which will likely require unemployment to fall to 4 per cent or even lower.

One hurdle is the end of the government's JobKeeper support package, which still had around 1.1 million workers on the books at the end of March. Its demise could cost around 100,000 to 150,000 jobs and nudge unemployment up this quarter.

However, demand for labour is running hot with the closely watched ABS measure of vacancies jumping to a record high of 288,700 in the three months to February, a rise of 28.5 per cent on the same period a year earlier.

A survey of business from NAB this week showed conditions were the best in the 26-year history of the series, with employment intentions at a record high.

Consumer confidence rocketed to an 11-year peak, defying concerns over the country's slow vaccine roll-out.

Westpac economist Justin Smirk noted the ratio of vacancies to the labour force had jumped to a record 2.1 per cent, from 1.8 per cent.

"This surge suggests significant momentum in employment growth, which is outpacing the rate of growth in the labour force. It has the potential to meaningfully drive unemployment below our current forecast for 5.7 per cent by end 2021," said Mr Smirk.

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