Characteristics of Employment, Australia methodology

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Reference period
August 2020


The Characteristics of Employment (COE) survey was conducted throughout Australia in August 2020 as a supplement to the monthly Labour Force Survey (LFS). Respondents to the LFS who fell within the scope of the supplementary survey were asked further questions.

Additional information about survey design, scope, coverage and population benchmarks relevant to the monthly LFS, which also applies to supplementary surveys, can be found in Labour Force, Australia, Methodology.

Descriptions of the underlying concepts and structure of Australia's labour force statistics, and the sources and methods used in compiling the estimates, are presented in Labour Statistics: Concepts, Sources and Methods.

Scope and coverage

The scope of the LFS is the civilian population aged 15 years and over, excluding

  • Members of the permanent defence forces
  • Certain diplomatic personnel of overseas governments
  • Overseas residents in Australia
  • Members of non-Australian defence forces (and their dependants) stationed in Australia.

Students at boarding schools, patients in hospitals, residents of homes (e.g. retirement homes, homes for people with disabilities), and inmates of prisons are excluded from all supplementary surveys. 

This supplementary survey was conducted in both urban and rural areas in all states and territories, but excluded people living in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

In addition to those already excluded from the LFS, contributing family workers, people not in the labour force and unemployed people were also excluded.

In the LFS, coverage rules are applied, which aim to ensure that each person is associated with only one dwelling, and hence has only one chance of selection in the survey. See Labour Force, Australia methodology for more details.

Collection method

Supplementary surveys are not conducted on the full LFS sample, since August 1994 the sample for supplementary surveys has been restricted to no more than seven-eighths of the LFS sample. This survey is based on the new sample introduced into LFS in July 2018. The new sample design has adopted the use of the Address Register as the sampling frame for unit selection, and the sampling fractions for selection probabilities within each state have been updated to reflect the most recent population distribution based on results from the 2016 Census of Population and Housing. As with each regular sample design, the impacts on the data are expected to be minimal. For more information, see the Information Paper: Labour Force Survey Sample Design, Jul 2018.

Information is obtained either by trained interviewers or through self-completion online. The interviews are generally conducted during the two weeks beginning on the Sunday between the 5th and 11th of August. The information obtained relates to the week before the interview (i.e. the reference week). Occasionally, circumstances that present significant operational difficulties for survey collection can result in a change to the normal pattern for the start of interviewing.

COE questionnaire

Weighting and estimation

Population benchmarks

The Labour Force Survey estimates and estimates from the supplementary surveys such as Characteristics of Employment are calculated in such a way as to sum to the independent estimates of the civilian population aged 15 years and over (population benchmarks). These population benchmarks are updated quarterly based on Estimated Resident Population (ERP) data. See Labour Force, Australia methodology for more information.

From August 2015, Labour Force Estimates have been compiled using population benchmarks based on the most recently available release of ERP data, continually revised on a quarterly basis.

To reduce the impact of seasonality on total employment, the estimates have been adjusted by factors based on seasonally adjusted LFS estimates. These factors were applied at the state and territory, sex, full-time and total employment levels, based on the seasonally adjusted LFS series as published in the August 2020 issue of Labour Force, Australia (published 17/09/20). This adjustment accounts for August seasonality and irregular effects, resulting in an increase to the typically lower original employed estimates for August.


Where information relating to earnings in both main job and/or second job was not provided by the respondent, values are imputed. Where this was the only information missing from the respondent record, the value was imputed based on answers provided from another respondent with similar characteristics (referred to as the "donor"). Donor records were selected for imputation of earnings in main job by matching information on sex, age, state or territory of usual residence and selected labour force characteristics (full-time or part-time in main job, industry, occupation (and skill level), hours worked in main job, hourly rates, owner manager status) of the person with missing information.

Donor records were selected for imputation of earnings in second job by matching information on age, state or territory of usual residence, area of usual residence, owner manager status, hours worked in second job and frequency of pay in second job. Depending on which values were imputed, donors were chosen from the pool of individual records with complete information for the block of questions where the information was missing.

Prior to 2004, imputation was not used. Employees whose weekly earnings could not be determined were excluded from estimates of mean or median weekly earnings. Care should be taken when comparing earnings data from 2004 onwards with earnings data prior to 2004. To compare the change in methodology from 2003 to 2004 see paragraph 28 of the August 2004 Employee Earnings, Benefits and Trade Union Membership (EEBTUM).


Comparability with LFS

Due to differences in the scope and sample size of this supplementary survey and that of the monthly LFS, the estimation procedure may lead to some small variations between labour force estimates from this survey and those from the LFS.

Comparability with other earnings sources

Caution should be exercised when comparing estimates of earnings in this release with estimates of earnings in the biannual Average Weekly Earnings and two-yearly Employee Earnings and Hours, which are compiled from employer based surveys. There are important differences in the scope, coverage and methodology of these surveys which can result in different estimates of earnings from each survey.

The survey of Average Weekly Earnings (AWE) collects information from employers who provide details of their employees' total gross earnings and their total number of employees (excluding amounts salary sacrificed). The survey of Employee Earnings and Hours (EEH) collects information about weekly earnings and hours paid for, and the individual characteristics of a sample of employees within each selected employer unit. Both AWE and EEH are completed by employers with information from their payroll. However, for COE, respondents are either the employed person or another adult member of their household who responds on their behalf. Where earnings are not known exactly an estimate is reported. There are also scoping differences between both household and employer surveys. For example, AWE and EEH exclude employees in the Agriculture, forestry and fishing industry, and also employees of Private households, whereas these employees are included in the COE and EEBTUM surveys.

For further information on a number of earning series available from ABS sources, please refer to the Income and Earnings fact sheet in Labour Statistics: Concepts, Sources and Methods, or the spotlight article Comparing average weekly earnings with other measures of earnings in Average Weekly Earnings

Survey output

Release strategy

From August 2020, statistics from the Characteristics of Employment survey are now published in three topic-based releases. See

Characteristics of Employment data for 2014 to 2020 will be available in TableBuilder from 16 December 2020. TableBuilder enables the creation of customised tables and graphs.

Survey content

Characteristics of Employment contains data on mean and median weekly and hourly earnings, working time arrangements, working patterns, casual work, independent contracting, job flexibility, job stability, labour hire, locations of work and trade union membership, along with detailed socio-demographic and job characteristics.

Some data are only collected every two years, on an alternating basis, such as

  • overwork, job flexibility, working patterns and locations of work.
  • trade union membership, independent contractors and employment found through an employment agency or labour hire firm.

Characteristics of employment includes information on

  • Socio-demographic characteristics - including sex; age; social marital status; relationship in household; state or territory of usual residence; and country of birth and elapsed years since arrival in Australia.
  • Employment characteristics - including occupation; industry; hours worked; full-time or part-time status; sector; duration with current employer/business; whether worked on a fixed-term contract; and whether considered job to be casual.
  • Employee earnings - including weekly and hourly earnings distributions; mean and median weekly earnings (in main, second and all jobs) 
  • Leave entitlements - paid sick leave; paid holiday leave; and paid maternity/paternity leave.
  • Trade Union Membership - including trade union membership in main job; trade union member not necessarily in connection with main job; length of current trade union membership; whether previously a trade union member.
  • Independent Contractors - Whether usually able to work on more than one active contract; whether had more than one contract for work in reference week; whether able to (sub) contract own work; main reason unable to (sub) contract own work; and whether had authority over own working procedures.
  • Working patterns and arrangements - including whether usually work the same number of hours each week; whether guaranteed a minimum number of hours or work; whether pay varies ; whether usually works extra hours or overtime; whether required to be on-call or standby; whether usually worked shift work and type; working from home; whether had an agreement with employer to work flexible hours; whether preferred to work fewer hours; days of the week usually worked.
  • People who found their job through a labour hire firm/employment agency - Whether currently registered or had registered in the last 12 months; whether found a job; and whether paid by a labour hire firm/employment agency.

Previous surveys

Earnings and benefits

Similar surveys on weekly earnings have been conducted annually in August since 1975, except in 1991 when the survey was conducted in July, and in 1996 when the survey was not conducted. Prior to the commencement of Characteristics of Employment in 2014, weekly earnings and employment benefits were published in Employee Earnings, Benefits and Trade Union Membership, Australia (known as Weekly Earnings of Employees (Distribution), Australia prior to 1999).

Prior to 1997, information on employment benefits (such as leave entitlements) have been published in

Information on the use of leave entitlements was previously published in Annual and Long Service Leave Taken, Australia, 1974-1989 (cat. 6317.0). Information on the use of paid sick leave was last published in Working Arrangements, Australia, Nov 2003 (cat. no. 6342.0).

Trade union membership

Information on trade union membership was first collected in a supplementary survey in 1976, again in 1982, then biennially in its current format from 1986 to 1990. Between 1992 and 2013, it was conducted annually (with only limited data available every second year). Prior to Characteristics of Employment, results of previous surveys were published in Employee Earnings, Benefits and Trade Union Membership, Australia. and before that in Trade Union Members, Australia.

Limited data on trade union membership have also been published in

Information on trade union membership provided from an annual census of trade unions is available in the following reports between 1891 and 1996

Working arrangements

Information on working arrangement and forms of employment was originally collected every 3 years between 1998 and 2004, followed by surveys in 2006 and 2007. In 2008, the survey was redeveloped to better capture information of independent contractors, and was collected annually on this basis until 2013. Results of previous surveys were published in Forms of Employment, Australia.

Information on Working Arrangements has been collected in a variety of surveys since 1976, as follows

Information on employment through a labour hire firm or employment agency was first collected in the 2008 issue of Forms of Employment, Australia and again in November 2011. 

Information on Working from home has been collected irregularly between 1989 and 2008 in Locations of Work, Australia (known as Persons Employed at Home, Australia prior to 2000).

Accuracy and quality

Reliability of estimates

As the estimates are based on information obtained from occupants of a sample of households, they are subject to sampling variability. That is, they may differ from those estimates that would have been produced if all households had been included in the survey or a different sample was selected. Two types of error are possible in an estimate based on a sample survey - sampling error and non-sampling error.

  • sampling error is the difference between the published estimate and the value that would have been produced if all dwellings had been included in the survey.
  • non-sampling errors are inaccuracies that occur because of imperfections in reporting by respondents and interviewers, and errors made in coding and processing data. These inaccuracies may occur in any enumeration, whether it be a full count or a sample. Every effort is made to reduce the non-sampling error to a minimum by careful design of questionnaires, intensive training and effective processing procedures.

Some of the estimates contained in the tables have a relative standard error (RSE) of 50 per cent or greater. These estimates are marked as unreliable for general use. Estimates with an RSE of between 25 and 50 per cent are also marked and should be used with caution.

More on reliability of estimates


As estimates have been rounded, discrepancies may occur between sums of the component items and totals.

Standards and classifications


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History of changes

The ABS has been conducting the Characteristics of Employment Survey, or its predecessors, since 1975. While seeking to provide a high degree of consistency and comparability over time by minimising changes to the survey, sound survey practice requires careful and continuing maintenance and development to maintain the integrity of the data and the efficiency of the collection.

The changes which have been made to Characteristics of Employment, its predecessors and the monthly LFS have included changes in sampling methods, estimation methods, concepts, data item definitions, classifications, and time series analysis techniques.

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