Estimating intercensal Indigenous employment change, 1991-96

Author/editor: Taylor, J, Bell, M
Year published: 1998
Issue no.: 155


The 1996 Census count of Indigenous Australians included a substantial number of individuals who were not recorded as Indigenous by the previous census. This paper considers the implications of this for interpreting change in employment numbers and provides a methodology for reconciling census data.

This task is urgent because policy makers rely heavily on census data to measure outcomes and establish trends. At face value, results from the 1996 Census present a good news story - an increase of 25,000 people in work, representing a 44 per cent growth since 1991. Such growth is scarcely credible in the context of previously observed Indigenous employment trends as well as what is known about the performance of the labour market generally. How then is it to be interpreted?

Regional change in employment

One possibility is that employment growth was inflated by the addition of newcomers to the Indigenous population who were more likely to be employed. If this is so, then it might be expected that regions with excess Indigenous population growth also had above average growth in Indigenous employment. When this proposition is tested no clear pattern emerges:

  • Trends in some jurisdictions appear to support the hypothesis. In the Northern Territory, which experienced almost no excess population increase, employment growth was below the national average. On the other hand, New South Wales, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory, which had high excess population growth, also had above average employment growth.
  • Contrary to the hypothesis, however, employment growth in Western Australia was well above average despite its relatively low excess population growth. Also, Victoria and South Australia, with higher population growth rates than Western Australia, recorded very low employment growth.

This variability suggests two things. First, that factors other than change in identification have contributed to employment growth. Second, that even in cases where population increase has been augmented by change in identification, the employment characteristics of 'newcomers' to the population have done little to alter the overall profile of labour force status.

Components analysis of intercensal employment change

A more direct approach to the interpretation of employment change is to estimate the contribution of key components. Two methods are presented. The first is based on an acceptance that all those recorded as Indigenous in 1996 were present in 1991 but a proportion did not appear as such in the census. They therefore have to be restored to the 1991 population in order to align 1991 employment with that observed in 1996. This adjustment is based on a reverse survival procedure with the effect of raising 1991 employment from 56,900 to an estimated 67,200.

A second adjustment is made using administrative data to account for the contribution of increased participation in the CDEP scheme and labour market programs to employment growth. This produces a residual net intercensal increase in mainstream employment of almost 3,000 positions representing a rate of increase of 1 per cent per annum. This was insufficient to keep up with growth in the working-age population resulting in a decline over the five-year period in the mainstream employment/population ratio from 27.9 to 26.3.

Policy implications

  • The first half of the 1990s was one of continued over-reliance on the CDEP scheme and labour market programs for growth in officially identified employment.
  • The gap between Indigenous people potentially eligible for mainstream work and those actually in mainstream work continues to widen.
  • Recommended changes to the CDEP scheme and the dismantling of many labour market programs increases the likelihood that Indigenous people will appear in official statistics as unemployed, certainly against the backdrop of continued population growth.
  • Whether alternative employment options are being created for Indigenous people in the mainstream labour market is unknown, and will remain unknown, until the next census results are available in 2002.
  • As far as the government's commitment to achieving 'real' improvements in labour force status is concerned, it is difficult to see by what means progress in this regard will be monitored as long as data on Indigenous employment remain unavailable from conventional sources such as the Monthly Labour Force Survey.

ISBN: 0 7315 2590 6

ISSN:1036 1774

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