The Irish unemployment rate fell to a fresh cycle low of 5.1% in June, from 5.6% in March and 6.6% a year earlier. The monthly estimate is subject to revision but on the face of it implies that employment growth has accelerated from an already strong pace and that Ireland is approaching full employment. The speed of the decline has certainly surprised most analysts; the Department of Finance anticipated unemployment bottoming out next year at 5.3% from an average 5.8% in 2018. In fact, Government budgetary projections are predicated on the view that the economy is already operating above is potential, although one rarely hears that articulated by Ministers.
Full employment does not mean a zero unemployment rate; there will always be churn in the labour market (frictional unemployment) and some workers may not have the skills, education or aptitude to take up the available jobs (structural unemployment). The scale of the latter, in particualr, is hard to gauge so estimates of what unemployment rate is consistent with full employment often vary and can change over time; the unemployment rate has surprised to the downside of late in both the US and the UK, for example. Ireland has also experienced lower unemployment in the past, with a rate under 4% in the early noughties and a sub 5% reading in the years before the 2008 crash.
That perhaps argues that the unemployment rate could certainly fall further, and particularly as the participation rate ( that proportion of the population over 15 in the labour force) is still much lower than it was a decade ago, averaging 62% over the past year as against well over 66% in 2007. A return to the latter level would equate to an additional 170,000 joining the labour force, equivalent to three years employment growth given the current pace of job gains.
That kind of a move in the participation rate seems highly unlikely, however, given the modest level of net immigration currently seen relative to the pre-crash period. Nonetheless, the pool of available labour is bigger than captured in the labour force data, as the figures also record those who are seeking work , but not immediately, as well as those available for work but not yet seeking it. The CSO defines these two groups as the Potential Additional Labour Force (PALF) and this figure is sizeable, amounting to 120,000 in the first quarter. The unemployment rate adjusted for the PALF is therefore much higher, at 10%, although it is problematical to compare this with the historical experience as there was a step jump following the switch to a new survey methodology in the latter part of 2017.
Employment is now marginally above the pre-crash peak and if labour is getting scarcer one might expect to see an acceleration in wage growth as firms bid for workers. That has not been evident, however, at least as yet. Average weekly earnings in the private sector rose by an annual 1.8% in the first quarter of 2018 following a 1.7% rise in 2017, but that followed a 2.3% increase in 2016. Low consumer price inflation may be a factor but wage inflation is surprisingly soft in some areas where there is perceived to be a scarcity premium, notably construction, with average earnings growth of 1.1 % in the first quarter and only 0.3% last year.
It is also worth noting that although total employment is again around the pre-crash peak the composition is more evenly distributed across sectors. Then, 10.5% of jobs were in construction alone but that proportion in 2018 is only 6%, with the total employed some 100,000 below the peak. Employment in industry too is 20,000 below the pre-crash level and also lower in retail (36,000) and financial services (4,000) Indeed, although some private sector areas have seen job gains, notably Hotels and Restaurants (30,000 ) and Professional and Scientific (12,000), most of the increase has occurred in areas dominatd by the public sector, including Education (30,000) and Health (40,000).
Ultimately, the clearest sign that the economy has reached full employment is when the unemployment rate stops falling and that is only observed ex-post. However, the current distribution of employment, the absence of aggregate pay pressure and the relatively low participation rate all point to the likelihood of unemployment falling further in the absence of a demand shock. The latter is always a risk, of course, be it from Brexit or from a broader global slowdown.