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The latest quarterly employment statistics released by Stats SA, for the fourth quarter of 2023, were based on a new sample drawn last year. According to employment data based on this new sample, employment increased at more than double the rate between early 2021 and 2023 than previously thought.

Stats SA regularly changes the sample from which it derives the employment data. In this release, it switched from a sample from 2021 to one drawn in 2023. To maintain continuity in time series and minimise revisions to historical growth rates, historical employment and gross earnings levels were adjusted, linking them to estimates based on the new 2023 sample, said Lisette IJssel de Schepper, chief economist at the Bureau for Economic Research (BER).

“With the new sample, it seems that the post-Covid employment recovery was much stronger than initially thought. It seems like the level of formal non-agri employment was back at pre-pandemic levels in 2021 already, while the 2021 sample did not have it reach pre-pandemic levels at all,” she said.

The 2023 fourth-quarter employment statistics show formal employment dropped from 10.3-million just before the first Covid-19 lockdown in March 2020 to about 9.6-million by mid-2020. According to the previous 2021 sample data, employment figures in the formal sector had still not recovered to pre-pandemic levels by September 2023. However, the new 2023 sample data showed formal employment rose above 10.3-million by mid-2022, reaching a high of 10.9-million in September last year before declining again slightly to 10.7-million by December.

The previous sample, drawn in 2021 when SA was still under lockdown, would have been affected by business closures during the pandemic, said Matlapane Masupye, director of quarterly employment statistics at Stats SA.

According to this sample formal employment grew by only about 3.8% in 2021-23. However, the 2023 sample shows employment recovering by about 11% in 2021-23.

Masupye said that while some of the difference between the results obtained using the 2021 and 2023 samples could be attributed to post-Covid jobs growth, the new sample was also improved to include areas previously not covered.

“When we get a new sample, we try to identify areas that we were not capturing previously. In the 2023 sample, we include technical vocational education & training colleges for the first time, for example. This alone brought in around 20,000 new jobs that were not captured previously,” he said.

New samples are drawn from updated frames which list all the businesses from which the sample is drawn. The 2023 frame listed an additional 3,700 businesses (bringing the total to about 248,500) not captured in the 2021 frame.

“Business demographics are constantly changing, and we must make sure that these changes are captured in the statistics by growing the sample used to compile the quarterly employment statistics. Using old samples would result in statistics that do not reflect what is happening in the real world,” said Masupye.

The increase in the total number of jobs between the 2021 and 2023 samples was driven mostly by growth in trade employment, he said.

Ideally, Stats SA should be doing new sampling every year, but Masupye said this was not possible in 2022 due to budget cuts and the freezing of posts. He said it was not certain whether it would have the resources to update the sample this year.

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