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Australia: Workers became more loyal during the pandemic but retrenchments spiked

Workers stuck with their employers more than usual during the coronavirus pandemic but businesses gave the boot to about 390,000 people as outbreaks and lockdowns rocked the economy.

A tranche of new jobs data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics on Wednesday shows 393,500 employees were looking to switch to a better job or wanting a change in workplace during the pandemic. That was far below the pre-pandemic level of 520,400 for the year to February 2020.

More than 400,000 people a year left work for these reasons since 2016 and the count was rising annually before COVID hit the nation.

However, retrenchments were falling on an annual basis before coronavirus. In 2016, 321,900 people were given the kick by their employer and this fell to 268,100 in 2020. But in 2021, the number of people being retrenched spiked to 393,100.

The data shows both men and women were less likely to choose to leave their job for family reasons during the pandemic, as more households juggled childcare with work from home commitments. In 2020, more than 145,000 women quit for this reason compared to almost 58,000 men. In 2021 this dropped to about 116,000 women and 34,000 men.

The figures have prompted Australian Council of Trade Unions president Michele O’Neil to urge the federal government to do more for childcare, saying parents should not be locked out of the job market because they cannot afford or access childcare.

“This should not be a barrier to anyone entering the workforce and it is critical that the federal government introduce free universal early childhood education and care,” she said.

The federal government unveiled a $1.7 billion childcare package during the May budget, which kicks in next year and benefits families with multiple children in care. Labor has promised to remove the cap on the childcare subsidy should the party win the next election.

Across the country, 1.81 million people lost their job or quit in 2021, compared to 1.98 million in 2020 and 1.86 million in 2016. There was a sharp decline in those who had left a holiday job to return to studies and those quitting to launch a business and a modest decline in people who quit to retire.

There were 2.2 million people out of work but wanting a job in February, up by 100,000 people annually. About 800,000 people were counted as unemployed while the other 1.4 million were not working but were either not actively seeking a job, for a range of reasons such as study or childcare, or were unable to work immediately.

ABS head of labour statistics Bjorn Jarvis said about 7.5 per cent of employed people switched business in the year to February 2021, down from 8.1 per cent in the same period the year before. The movement of people from one job to another is known as job mobility.

“Job mobility in Australia has been generally trending down for decades and reached a new low during the first year of the pandemic. Around 82,000 fewer people changed jobs than in the year before,” Mr Jarvis said.

Men were less likely to switch jobs, down to 7.5 per cent in 2021 from 8.4 per cent in 2020 compared to women at 7.6 per cent down from 7.8 per cent.

There were drops in job mobility across the majority of occupation groups, with managers, professionals and machinery operators and drivers experiencing the biggest falls. These jobs were among the least affected by the pandemic.

Declines were also recorded for sales workers, technicians and trade workers but there were increases for labourers and community and personal service workers. Clerical and administrative workers remained stable.

The largest increase in job mobility by industry was for accommodation and food services roles.

The National Skills Commission’s survey of businesses about their recruitment experiences in June recorded a slim reduction in employers finding it difficult to fill vacancies. About 20 per cent of employers expected to increase staffing levels over the next quarter with the accommodation and food services industry recording the highest rate of recruitment between August 2020 and June 2021.