IN purely economic terms, the Hunter is fortunate to play host to a booming coal industry.
The region’s mines provide many well-paid direct jobs and support many more indirectly.
One of the clearest indicators of mining’s impact on employment can be seen in the continuing skills shortage. So strong is the coal industry’s demand for skilled trades that, years after the skills shortage was first noted, many businesses still can’t find the trained employees they need.
The Hunter Valley Research Foundation has reported that the region’s workforce grew by more than 8000 in the March quarter.
According to the most recent employment statistics, the Hunter’s jobless rate exactly matches the national figure of 4.9 per cent. Some economists would regard that as practically full employment, since many consider five per cent a typical figure for so-called ‘‘frictional unemployment,’’ – the proportion of people normally out of work because they are genuinely between jobs.
In the Hunter as much as elsewhere in Australia, businesses that aren’t riding on the coat-tails of mining are reporting subdued confidence.
Infrastructure stimulus spending, begun by the Rudd government after the onset of the global financial crisis, has largely tailed off and neither the state nor the federal governments appear keen to commit more substantial funds to the region.
A handful of major privately funded projects – mostly gas or coal-related – are pending and will, if approved, provide jobs and other benefits.
Consumer sentiment is relatively sluggish in the Hunter, as it is across Australia. Households appear still to be using disposable income to pay down debt rather than fund consumption.
Residential building approvals don’t appear to have slumped as far in the Hunter as they have elsewhere, but the housing and construction industries are far from buoyant.
Sales of established homes have slowed, and prices have been under pressure for some time.
There are hopes that recent interest rate cuts might bolster the housing industry further. In the meantime, while things could be better, the Hunter has much to be glad about.
OF course it’s good news that the federal government is spending $500,000 on a co-ordinated Hunter Region infrastructure plan.
But it’s hard to get too excited about what some might suggest is yet another expensive transport study. At last count the number of transport studies commissioned for the Hunter was about 30, with most having been completed then promptly shelved because nobody wanted to spend money making their recommendations into reality.
If this new plan can succeed in distilling what is already well-known about the Hunter’s transport needs and then actually meeting some of those needs it will be something to really applaud.