Health and well-being the real boom jobs
Illustration: Kerrie Leishman
Forget stereotypes such as flinty farmers and dust-covered miners. Australians are now more likely to make a living from ''healthcare and social assistance'' than anything else. The latest census revealed that broad employment category as having overtaken retail as Australia's biggest employer.
While mining has been hogging the headlines, the health and social assistance sector has quietly emerged as the nation's jobs powerhouse. It now accounts for more than one in every nine jobs, and in some states the ratio has climbed to nearly one in seven. Mining, by comparison, only employs about one in 50 Australian workers.
The rise of the health and social assistance sector is a great Australian story: not only does it provide more employment than any other, those jobs are focused on helping other people. It includes people who work in hospitals, medical and allied health services, aged care, childcare and other social services such as community health centres. Its 1.2 million-strong workforce is also relatively well educated - about three-quarters hold a post-school qualification, which is well above the national average.
But the success of health and social assistance has got much less attention than it deserves.
One reason is the steady stream of grim news about how some industries, especially manufacturing, are under pressure from structural changes to the economy caused by the minerals boom.
The deputy governor of the Reserve Bank, Philip Lowe, has pointed out that, notwithstanding low unemployment, there's an unusually high rate of turnover in the Australian labour market at the moment. He estimates that the number of people who left a job over the year to February 2012, as a share of those employed some time during the year, was the highest in two decades.
''The structural changes in the economy are clearly one factor contributing to this movement of people,'' he said in a speech last month.
This jobs churn has left people feeling uneasy. Media reports have probably contributed: we do a much better job at drawing attention to mass lay-offs from a factory than new health workers in suburban hospitals.
Many people seem to have been left with the impression that the labour market is much weaker than it really is. As a consequence, consumers are quite worried about rising unemployment even though the jobless rate is low and fairly steady.
The mood might not be so dark if the health and social assistance sector got more attention. Around 300,000 new jobs have been created nationally in healthcare alone since 2007. The census revealed Sydney's two fastest growing occupations between 2006 and 2011 were caring jobs - personal carers and assistants (up 33 per cent) and child carers (up 32 per cent). The jobs boom in health and social assistance hints at how we've used the dividends of the minerals boom. Deloitte-Access Economics estimates the lasting increase in our terms of trade (the prices we get for exports relative to the prices we pay for imports) has boosted our national income by an average of $165 billion a year since 2003. The census employment figures suggest we're spending a lot of that on our health and well-being.
That should come as no surprise: as societies become wealthier they tend to spend more on their health and physical welfare.
Back in 1971 health expenditure was worth 4.5 per cent of gross domestic product, but now it's 10 per cent. It's an investment that's paying tangible dividends. The life expectancy of Australians has improved by eight years in the past four decades and continues to increase by about three weeks each year. The ageing population means health expenditure is destined to keep growing - the Federal government's intergenerational report predicts it will reach about 18 per cent of GDP by 2050. As a result, employment in the health and social assistance sector, which grew from 10.5 per cent of Australian jobs in 2006 to 11.7 per cent in 2011, will make up an even bigger share in coming decades.
The census data confirms a boom in service industries, related to but distinct from healthcare, which aim to make us feel better. Sydney's fast growing army of fitness trainers is a good example - it expanded by an astonishing 65 per cent between 2006 and 2010. The number of massage therapists in the city rose by more than 28 per cent.
The rise of the healthcare and social assistance sector underscores another important economic trend - the growing influence of women workers. Nearly 80 per cent of the workers in the sector are females.
Women also dominate Australia's second biggest employer - retail trade. Those two top occupational categories now account for more than 22 per cent of Australian jobs. Furthermore, one in every four Sydney employees earning over $100,000-a-year is now a woman.
And guess what? Marketing specialists have found that group is likely to spend a significant portion of income on their fitness, appearance and personal well-being. Amanda Stevens, a marketing consultant who specialises in female spending behaviour, says a regular pedicure, for example, is now ''an important and necessary spending decision'' for many women workers. Investing in health, well-being and even appearance makes financial sense because healthy, well-groomed workers usually do better.
Like every sector, health and social assistance has challenges. Many in the sector are poorly paid, especially in the aged care and childcare. Economists also fret that it will be difficult to raise the productivity of health and caring services.
Even so, the unassuming rise of the healthcare and social assistance sector - and the rapid growth in related services that help us feel better - is something to celebrate.