PLANT

Looking beyond the numbers game


February 18, 2010
by Ken Lewenza

Each month, Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey delivers a report card on our nation’s labour market and economy in a series of charts and graphs. Economists, opinion makers, journalists, business and labour leaders end up framing the job gains and losses according to the interests of their own constituents, but their efforts usually ignore the bigger economic picture experienced so acutely in the homes and workplaces of people across the country. This monthly dose of encouragement (or discouragement) is divorced from most Canadians’ day-to-day realities, economic policies, sector-based industrial strategies and trade deals.

Since the recession officially began in October 2008, employment figures have even sparked the interest of people who rarely follow economic trends and statistics. It’s as though the monthly job numbers are the magic eight ball, responding to the question: “Is it getting any better?”

Relying too heavily on these numbers is a mistake. The figures are gathered by a massive survey of households across the country. Interviews are conducted by phone or in person, but not everyone is included in the sample. Aboriginal people on reserves, for example, are excluded due to “serious challenges” in logistics, yet typically have an unemployment rate of double the national average. Our youngest workers (under the age of 15) are also unaccounted for, despite minimum age laws of 14 years in most jurisdictions (12 in BC and Alberta).

And these monthly numbers are not absolute. Statistics Canada considers a change in national employment of less than 28,000 not statistically significant.

This monthly service is an important one, but looking at the numbers without deeper analysis is not the right approach to understanding the economy.

Last year, the numbers were up and down like a rollercoaster, in many cases defying the expectations of even the most informed of economists. In November, we experienced a surprising growth of 79,100 new jobs, a sign of what economists and politicians alike referred to as “green shoots” back in the spring when the job numbers briefly pointed to a recovery.

Some economists were cautiously optimistic while others were more conclusive.

“Our economy is in recovery mode,” BMO Capital Markets Economist Jennifer Lee told the National Post (despite the fact that private sector employment was down more than 360,000 jobs over the previous 12 months). “The Canadian dollar jumped on the news that Canadian employment rose by 79,100 in November, retracing all of October’s 43,200 losses and then some.”