Local jobs for local people? How the ONS keeps abreast of shifting employment patterns

The monthly UK employment figures are among the most closely-watched indicators of the nation’s economic health.  But behind the headline figures, the Office for National Statistics also gathers a wealth of local employment data that offer valuable insight into the everchanging nature and distribution of jobs. David Freeman sets out what’s available, how we gather it, and looks forward to some new and even more detailed statistics to come.       

Do you need to know how many people work in retail in Reading? Or in construction in Cardiff? Or in IT in Inverness?   Well, thanks one of the UK’s largest business surveys, the ONS has all the answers. Every year the results of ‘BRES’ – the Business Register and Employment Survey – give us a detailed snapshot of employment by industry and region across the UK.

It’s a crucial tool in understanding the UK labour market and the impact of changes in the economy and government policies. It is particularly important to local authorities as it provides a comprehensive picture of which are the biggest industries in their particular areas and how that has changed over time, to enable better decision-making at a local level.

So how do we do this and make sure our data are reliable? Let’s start at the very beginning…

Selecting the sample

To select the sample for BRES we have a register of businesses in the UK, constructed from information on VAT and PAYE registrations as well as ONS surveys. The register contains around 2 million businesses and this forms the basis of BRES. From that we select a sample of 85,000 businesses. To make it’s representative we include all large businesses – normally those employing more than a hundred people- and then a random sample of the remaining businesses. To make sure we cover the whole country, the sample is constructed so that we select a minimum number in each local authority, industry and employment sizeband.

Collecting the data

Once we have our sample, each business selected is asked for information on its employment on a specific date in September. What makes BRES different from other ONS business surveys that ask for employment data is the level of detail. For surveys that we carry out monthly or quarterly, we only ask for the total employment for the business. For BRES, we ask each business to provide employment information for each unit within the business as well as the location of the unit and what that unit does. For example, a large retailer will be asked to provide information for each of its shops in the UK as well as any other functions like wholesaling or head office.

Getting the total figure

Once we have all the data from our sample, we then need to turn this into an estimate for the whole country. To do this we go back to our business register. From there we split the whole of the population into industries and regions and weight sample returns according to the number of businesses they represent while calibrating these weights to total register employee counts. There’s also an adjustment for non-response from businesses and for births and deaths of companies, so this calculation is a little involved!

Getting the data to our users

Once we have finalised the data we then need to put it out so that people can see it. This year the BRES release has changed in line with other labour market releases to a modular format with separate releases for the headline numbers, analysis by industry and analysis by area. However, the level of detail that BRES provides cannot be adequately covered in the releases. To help local authorities, and other interested users, we make the BRES dataset available through our NOMIS system, which allows users to get hold of the detailed data they need at the level they want, with a proviso that NOMIS doesn’t cover Northern Ireland.

What next…

While BRES provides a comprehensive picture of jobs in the UK, it has the usual limitations of a sample survey — such as estimates being subject to sampling variability and that the sample is limited to those businesses on our register, which may not immediately pick up new businesses. As part of the ONS transformation programme, we are planning to use income tax data as part of our labour market statistics production. This will, potentially, give us close to real-time employment information from every business with a PAYE scheme, including newer businesses. This will provide us with a wealth of new information that we can use to provide even more detail and more timely figures for our users.


David Freeman is Head of Labour Market and Households at ONS