THE Hunter’s workforce increased by more than 8000 people in the first three months of 2012, taking the number of people employed in the region to 320,300.
The latest Hunter Valley Research Foundation figures released yesterday show the region recorded employment growth of 2.5 per cent over the past 12 months.
As a result, unemployment dropped to 4.9 per cent in the March quarter.
Director of Research Simon Deeming said the statistics showed the Hunter was in a healthy state.
Unemployment had risen from 3.5 per cent to 4.9 per cent from the December quarter but over the past 12 months, the stronger indicator, it had fallen from 5.1 per cent.
Mr Deeming said the labour force in the Hunter was in a strong position but he highlighted the skills shortage that had been troubling the region since the region’s resources boom.
‘‘There are still companies trying to hire workers but they can’t because they don’t have the necessary skills for the jobs,’’ Mr Deeming said.
‘‘There are others that don’t have enough turnover to keep their workers on the books, but what we’re seeing is increased support for the weaker sectors like retail.’’
The Hunter Valley Research Foundation uses a variety of economic data, including the Australian Bureau of Statistics and its own customised surveys, to analyse the region’s economy.
Newcastle MP Tim Owen welcomed the employment growth data but said it needed to be seen in the context of a long-term view of the region’s economy.
‘‘We have enjoyed the benefits of the resource boom but we need to be sure that we buffer ourselves because there is no doubt change is going to come at some stage,’’ he said.
Director of the University of Newcastle’s Centre of Full Employment and Equity, Professor Bill Mitchell, cautioned that the region’s ‘‘hidden unemployment rate’’ remained high.
‘‘Our region is unusual relative to the rest of the country in that respect and if you add those hidden unemployed back into the unemployed then your unemployment rate is substantially higher and would be above the state average.’’
Interest rate cuts by the Reserve Bank of Australia in November and December last year also created positive signs for the Hunter’s housing market.
Mr Deeming said last week’s cut was likely to continue that trend.
Residential building approvals were down 5per cent in the Hunter compared with the state average of 7 per cent but there was still work to do. Affordability was not as good as it used to be a while ago but was better than more recent surveys.
Statistics showed business confidence was weak and the challenges facing the construction industry were also being felt by other sectors.
Passenger vehicle registrations rose by 21.4 per cent in the last quarter.