Recruitment rebounds in Australian academia

Analysis of Australian job advertisements points to recovery, particularly in non-traditional research

August 23, 2021
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The job market for Australian academics has all but recovered after crashing by up to three-quarters last year, a study has found. And the non-academic employment market for researchers is stronger than ever, soaring well above its 2019 peak.

An Australian National University (ANU) analysis has found that academic job advertisements have bounced back close to pre-pandemic levels, hovering at around 1,000 a month by mid-2021. This reflects demand in 2019, when 1,022 academic jobs on average were advertised in Australia’s higher education sector each month.

It contrasts greatly with the early weeks of Covid-19, when academic job advertisements bottomed out at 290 in April 2020. Appetite for academics in commerce, management and education faculties more than halved, with some 1,000 fewer jobs on offer across these disciplines in 2020 than in 2019, while advertisements in relatively niche fields such as history, philosophy and religion fell by up to three-quarters.

But recruitment largely recovered in the first half of 2021, with advertisements running at about 75 per cent of 2019 levels in these fields – and at above pre-pandemic volumes in areas including agriculture and Indigenous studies.

A summary of the data has been released by ANU’s Centre for the Public Awareness of Science. Co-author Will Grant stressed that the sector had not resurrected the thousands of jobs lost during the “darkest days” of the pandemic. “It’s just a recovery of where we were in terms of new jobs,” he said.

“We are still clearly suffering from the loss of international students. That huge revenue is missing. But it does suggest that we are planning for the future and building back.”

Dr Grant said higher education had suffered from the uncertainty that afflicted the broader Australian economy in early 2020, when mass unemployment threatened. “I think we’re past that. We will build back international student [flows] at some point. Even though we don’t know the dates, we know the path forward.”

Data on non-academic research job advertisements, collected using an AI-enabled algorithm called “PostAc”, reveals an even stronger recovery. Demand is above 2019 levels in 70 per cent of industry sectors – particularly in supermarkets and groceries, which advertised for almost as many researchers in the first half of 2021 as they did in the whole of 2019.

The insurance and social assistance sectors, each of which recruits roughly as many PhD graduates each year as scientific research organisations, are also advertising particularly strongly.

Dr Grant said the figures demonstrated the employability of people with PhDs. “A whole bunch of sectors are now employing high-end researchers to do really interesting work,” he said.

While it was no surprise to see supermarkets recruiting social and logistics experts to help tackle changing demand patterns during lockdown, this was part of a broader trend creating “great jobs” for highly skilled researchers in all parts of the economy. “They’re realising that research can fill amazing gaps, solve problems and lead to new markets.”

He said doctoral graduates who did not recognise this were selling themselves short. “They’ll take lower-end jobs in the higher education world, not realising their value outside [academia]. If they [tell] universities ‘I’ve got options out there’, then they’re in a much stronger position.”

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