Business·Analysis

Canada keeps breaking jobs records, but that could end Friday: Don Pittis

Canada has been a job-creating machine. With the latest statistics for Canada and the U.S. out Friday, economists, politicians — and a lot of the rest of us — will be scrutinizing the details to see if that's likely to continue.

The end may be nigh. How long can Canada keep up its job creation frenzy?

Still not built a year after advertised. Is this a sign Toronto's building boom is going off the boil? Only good statistics can separate anecdotal examples from what's really happening. (Don Pittis/CBC)

The Canadian economy has been a job creation dynamo, but the latest prediction from a survey of bank economists suggests that will come to an end Friday when Statistics Canada releases its latest figures.

In May, the Canadian unemployment rate hit a 43-year record low of 5.4 per cent as the economy cranked out an astounding 30,000 jobs.

However, this time around the average of the economist predictions suggests the new rate will rise a tick to 5.5 per cent. More significantly, job creation in June will plunge to 4,000, the economists say. 

Unemployment and job creation statistics are notoriously variable compared to some of the other figures Statistics Canada calculates. The data is based on surveys and most economic statisticians say we should not put too much faith in any single month's numbers.

Gloomy prognosticator

Of course, the economists offering their predictions to the business news service Bloomberg, as quoted above, are also wildly variable. The average job creation figure was clearly pulled down by a single gloomy prognosticator at Merrill Lynch who said the Canadian economy would lose 45,000 jobs.

The fact that estimates by highly paid economists can be so different is the reason why, despite a certain amount of room for error, the Statistics Canada numbers are so useful. Based on a standard sampling method used every month, they compare like with like, uncovering a relative trend even if the absolute numbers are uncertain.

As with a lot of data the agency generates, the trend line over time is considered more reliable, and therefore more useful, than any one month's results.

What constitutes safe and reliable employment is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. (Don Pittis/CBC News)

Perhaps even more important than the absolute numbers is their interpretation. That is what Brendan Bernard, an economist at the job search company Indeed, pointed out yesterday, examining the cumulative number of people working rather than the fluctuation in the employment rate.

"The prime-age employment rate — the share of Canadians age 25-54 with a job — is at an all-time high of 83.5 per cent," Bernard tweeted yesterday, linking to graphs and a longer report.

Women were doing well. But most surprising was that despite being hurt by trouble in the fossil fuel sector and the loss of traditional manufacturing jobs in Ontario, the number of employed prime-age men was back up to pre-recession levels, and has not been higher since 1989.

Jobs or good jobs?

Something special to watch on Friday is employment for people below the age of 25, as university students tried to find summer jobs in June.

One of many things the headline unemployment numbers don't tell us is whether the jobs are good enough to pay the cost of living, especially in Canada's expensive cities. As we've reported before, disappearing from the unemployment statistic does not mean you have full-time work or tell whether you feel secure in your job.

People trying to find or change jobs will watch the numbers, but unemployment is also an economic indicator in its own right. While the data may be imperfect, it has the advantage of being fresh, collected within the previous month.

For example, yesterday's newly released trade data showing Canada sold more goods abroad than it bought is two months old. Last Friday's encouraging GDP numbers were from April.

One of the most important economic indicators for the future of the Canadian economy comes out at the same time as the Canadian employment numbers: the equivalent U.S. job numbers.

The federal government reminds Canadians of the hazards of borrowing against home equity, something economists say has helped propel the consumer economy. (Don Pittis/CBC)

After going through a rough patch south of the border, economists polled on the prospects for U.S. employment foresee a sharp rise in job creation from the previous month, up from 75,000 to 163,000 jobs, with the unemployment rate expected to stick at a 50-year low of 3.6 per cent.

If those predictions come true despite recent coal company bankruptcies, GM plant closures and trade talk troubles, it is an indicator that other parts of the U.S. economy remain strong, helping to provide a market for Canadian goods.

Despite some recent economic good news, a pre-election survey commissioned by the CBC suggests Canadians remain worried.

That gloomy view has been repeated by various economic forecasts, including from Capital Economics — the company that repeatedly predicted a housing crash through much of the Canadian housing boom — that announced it foresees a whole series of interest rate cuts from the Bank of Canada, starting in October.

Politicians will also be watching like a hawk to see whether the job creation machine runs out of steam. Liberal incumbents will be hoping the boom continues. Although they are unlikely to mention it, some challengers probably wouldn't be horrified to see a few signs of economic weakness as the election draws closer.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

About the Author

Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.

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