Home » Unemployment rate jumps by more than expected in cooling jobs market

Unemployment rate jumps by more than expected in cooling jobs market

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said the jobless rate in Britain jumped to 4.2 per cent in the three months to February – the highest level for nearly six months and up from 3.9 per cent in the three months to January. Most economists had been expecting the rate to only edge up slightly to 4 per cent in the quarter.

The trend was followed locally, with the rate in the West Midlands was also up at 4.9 per cent, from 4.2 per cent.

The official figures also showed regular wages growth, excluding bonuses, falling back once again, to 6% in the three months to February from 6.1% in the previous three months.

Thanks to falling inflation, when taking the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) into account, real regular wages rose by 2.1%, which is the highest for almost two-and-a-half years.

But the drop in earnings growth was less than expected, with economists pencilling in a fall to 5.9%.

The Bank of England is watching wages closely in its battle to bring inflation back to its 2% target.

Liz McKeown, ONS director of economic statistics, said: “Recent trends of falling vacancy numbers and slowing earnings growth have continued this month, albeit at a reduced pace.

“At the same time, we are now seeing tentative signs that the jobs market is beginning to cool, with both a fall in the headline employment rate from our survey and a drop in the total number of people on payrolls from HMRC data.”

More timely data from HM Revenue & Customs revealed that the number of workers on payrolls fell by 67,000, or 0.2%, to 30.3 million in March.

This is the biggest drop since the quarter to November 2020 at the height of the pandemic, although the figures are estimates and subject to revision.

Vacancies likewise fell for the 21st period in a row, down 13,000 quarter on quarter to 916,000 in the first three months of 2024.

The data comes after the UK fell into recession at the end of last year, although it is thought this may prove short-lived, with recent output data suggesting the economy is heading for growth overall in the first quarter.

But the ONS warned that the unemployment rate data should still be treated with “caution” as it continues to overhaul its labour force survey due to low response rates, with the full revamped version not due to be introduced until September.

Acting shadow work and pensions secretary Alison McGovern took aim at the Government, saying: “Tory failure is laid bare by the reality that we are now the only country in the G7 with an employment rate stuck below pre-pandemic levels.”

Pay growth v inflation

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt focused on the boost to workers’ pockets from rising real wages.

He said: “It’s great that real wages have now risen for nine months in a row, and, together with our national insurance cuts worth £900 to the average worker, people should start to feel the difference.”

The figures also show there were an estimated 106,000 working days lost due to industrial action in February, with the health and social work sectors hardest hit by strikes.

Meanwhile, the West Midlands claimant count covering those claiming unemployment benefits, including Universal Credit, last month was 186,525, up 2,025 (5.1 per cent of the working population).

In Shropshire, the figure was 4,405 (2.3 per cent) marking no change while in Telford and Wrekin the number was 4,240 (3.7 per cent), up from 4,190.

The figure is Powys was 1,750 (2.3 per cent), up from 1,690.

The number of claimants in Dudley last month stood at 9,205 (4.7 per cent of the working population), down five from 9,210.

In Sandwell, the figure stood at 13,540 (6.3 per cent), up from 13,475 while the figure in Walsall was also up at 9,780 (5.6 per cent of the working population), compared to 9,705 previously.

Wolverhampton stood at 12,305 (7.5 per cent), up from 12,090.

The number of people claiming benefits in Staffordshire stood at 16,130, up from 15,910.

In Cannock Chase the number was 2,155 (3.4 per cent of the working population), down from 2,160.

The figure for Lichfield was 1,555 (3.9 per cent), marking no change, while in South Staffordshire the number was 1,745 (2.7 per cent) compared to 1,710 previously.

In Stafford, the number was 2,165 (2.7 per cent), up from 2,135 while in Tamworth the number stood at 1,775 (3.6 per cent), up from 1,745.

In Birmingham, the number of claimants was 66,875 (9.1 per cent) and for Wyre Forest, including Kidderminster, the claimant count figure stood at 1,865, down from 1,900 the previous month.