New Zealanders grew more optimistic about employment prospects in the September quarter with confidence lifting across age groups, regions and income categories, although workers weren't so upbeat about wages growth.
The Westpac-McDermott Miller Employment Confidence Index rose 8.5 points to 110.1 in the quarter, the highest level since September 2014. A reading above 100 indicates optimists outnumber pessimists. The present conditions index gained 9.2 points to 106.8 while the employment expectations index advanced 8.1 points to 112.2.
New Zealand's labour market has been improving this year as booming construction and tourism sectors underpin economic activity, while record net inflows of migrants have buoyed consumer demand. That expansion has created new jobs, though the growing population has led to a larger workforce, keeping wages static.
Earning expectations rose slightly, with 24.9 per cent of the 1,559 workers surveyed expecting a pay rise in the next 12 months, up 0.5 percentage points from the June quarter. A net 26 per cent of respondents were paid more now than they were a year earlier, up 2.4 percentage points.
"Despite the small improvement, earnings expectations over the next 12 months continue to linger well below average levels and are only a touch above the all-time low reached late last year," Westpac Banking Corp senior economist Anne Boniface said in her report.
The lack of wage growth was due to a combination of very low inflation, now at just 0.4 per cent, strong labour force participation and net migration-driven population growth, Boniface said.
"This will continue to provide a headache for the RBNZ as it looks to generate more inflation pressure in the economy," she said. "However, with signs that net migration may be nearing a cyclical peak, inflation projected to pick up next year, and the labour market continuing to tighten, it seems it will only be a matter of time before workers become more optimistic about their future earnings prospects."
A net 18.6 per cent of the respondents said they expected more job security over the coming year, up from a net 5.3 per cent in the June quarter, while a net 12.4 per cent said jobs are hard to get at the moment, an improvement on the net 28.4 per cent reading in June. Workers were less pessimistic about their opportunities, with a net 6.8 per cent picking it will be harder to get a job in a year's time, down from a net 17.1 per cent a quarter earlier.
Canterbury reported the biggest increase in employment confidence, gaining 17.8 points to an index reading of 122.4, making it the most optimistic region in the country. There had been a gradual decline in confidence in the region over the past year, but the index is now back where it was shortly after the 2011 earthquakes.
"The sharp improvement this quarter was particularly unexpected given our understanding of how the rebuild is progressing," Boniface said. "The level of rebuild activity in the region appears to have plateaued and with it, we would have thought, job prospects. It will be interesting to see if this optimistic tone remains in place over the remainder of the year."
Bay of Plenty was the only region where confidence deteriorated, down 0.9 of a point from the previous quarter, despite the improving outlook for dairy and strong construction in the region.
Auckland was the second-most optimistic region, with both current and future expectations improving. Gisborne/Hawkes Bay reported the weakest employment confidence in the country with workers the least likely to see jobs as plentiful, which Boniface said was consistent with the higher-than-average unemployment rate there.