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Working out Ottawa's LRT jobs gain

I don't know whether Dalton McGuinty made an honest error, or intentionally embellished the truth when he said this about Ottawa's LRT mega-project earlier this week:

"About 80 per cent of the jobs generated from the project will be local. That's about 20-thousand jobs."

There's quite a bit wrong with that statement. First, other officials, including the mayor, claimed later that 80 per cent of the jobs will be local. Not that 80 per cent of the job equals 20-thousand. But there was more than a mere mathematical mix-up in the premier's statement. Here's the City's official explanation of that 20-thousand figure:

"This number, which was originally presented in the 2009 LRT Business case, was generated using a Statistics Canada input-output multiplier formula relating to the transportation sector for the investment proposed for the OLRT/Confederation Line project. The output provided estimates of the direct and indirect employment impacts of the capital investment in Ottawa.

Rideau Transit Group has provided a more detailed accounting of direct job estimates. It is anticipated that the construction of the Confederation Line will generate over 3,200 direct person-years of trades' employment in the Ottawa area.  Skills employed will encompass the full spectrum of construction trades including road building, civil works, tunnelling, track work, and bridge work; structural, architectural, electrical and mechanical work.  Expertise in systems and communications will also be required.  Highly skilled technical staff will be hired, leading to an additional 700 person years of employment in Ottawa.  Also, 375 person-years of engineering employment will be created.  As referenced above, these direct jobs will create a multiplier effect in the local economy which is anticipated to generate over 20,000 people years of employment in indirect or induced impact over the construction period."

So it's not really 20-thousand new jobs, is it? It's 20-thousand "person-years." That's the same as one year of employment each for 20-thousand people. Or longer-term jobs -- maybe even full-time, permanent ones -- for far fewer folks. That seems to be the vision for some of the 200 or so skilled workers who will assemble the trains at that new "Centre for Excellence" on Belfast Road. Rideau Transit Group says the plan is to turn them into maintenance workers after the Confederation Line is finished. There's a couple thousand "person-years" right there, measured over time.

In fact, very few of those LRT-related jobs will be long-term ones. Rail office boss John Jensen says some will last the duration of the project; others will be short-term contracts. Even those will only make up a fraction of the overall employment gain: As the Rideau Transit Group confirms, only about four-thousand "person years" will be aportioned to tradespeople, skilled technicians and engineers. As fast as Ottawa's universities and Colleges can churn those professionals out, there remains a shortage of them here. So a good many of the local jobs -- that 80 per cent we're being promised -- will likely be those that are indirectly related to the project, the 15- or 16-thousand "person years" of work for parts suppliers and service industry workers.

As Carleton University professor Ian Lee points out, politicians love to throw around big employment numbers. But while locals will undoubtedly benefit from this massive project, Lee says the real economic benefit for the city isn't in short-term employment, but in the long term, in ways that are harder to sell from behind a podium.

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