Latest jobs report adds to Nova Scotia’s bad economic news

Media coverage of last week’s release of July employment numbers from Statistics Canada focused mainly on the bad news at the national level, where the survey turned up a loss of 31,200 jobs last month. As has become customary lately, Alberta’s contribution to the national employment malaise received a lot of attention as well, including the man-bites-dog revelation that the province’s unemployment rate last month crept past Nova Scotia’s for the first time in recorded (post-1976) history.

Taken together, the story lines suggest that, compared to the rest of the country, Nova Scotia’s employment picture is looking up. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Explored in a little more depth, the labour force survey shows – notwithstanding the surprising story about Alberta’s unemployment rate exceeding Nova Scotia’s – the continuation of Nova Scotia’s downward economic spiral.

It is true that in July Alberta had an unemployment rate of 8.6%, compared with a rate of 8.4% in Nova Scotia. But the increase in Alberta’s rate was caused mainly by an expansion of the labour force, a positive sign. Nova Scotia’s unemployment rate came in lower than Alberta’s only because our labour force shrank, a bad omen.

So, despite the headline, there’s no good news in the Nova Scotia-Alberta comparison – and the closer you look at the numbers the worse it gets for Nova Scotia. A relatively small drop in overall employment of 1,400 obscures the fact that there was a loss of 4,700 full-time jobs in July, leaving full-time employment in the province at 361,100, 8,600 fewer than July 2015 and the lowest level of full-time employment since April 2014.

Student jobs decline

The July jobs report also knocked the legs out from under one of the provincial Liberals’ few talking points on the economy. Until now they have been able to obfuscate the downturn in employment that has been a hallmark of their time in office by pointing to job growth among young workers. Self-congratulation about the growth of full-time jobs among 15 to 24-year-olds featured in this year’s budget address and the metric was recently cited by the Premier to illustrate the great job his government is doing meeting the Ivany challenge.

It now looks like the Liberals will have to call time out on that refrain, at least until a new set of job numbers come out in September. Last week’s report from Statscan revealed that on a seasonally adjusted basis full time employment among 15 to 24 year olds tanked in July, down by 2,700 from June and 4,100 from last July. The latter represents  a drop of 11.4%. Students planning to return to school in the fall were hit hard. Only 15,000 of them had full-time work in July, down from 17,100 in July 2015.

The employment numbers are not the only indicator of the sorry state of the Nova Scotia economy. There has been a steady stream of bad news from Statistics Canada  over the last few weeks. On July 28 the agency’s report on average weekly earnings showed a drop of $25.54 in Nova Scotia between April and May. That decline of three per cent left Nova Scotia with the second lowest weekly wage in the country, ahead of only Prince Edward Island. On an annual basis, average weekly wages in Nova Scotia increased by a mere $1.25  (0.2%) between May 2015 and May 2016. Only the oil dependent provinces – Newfoundland, Saskatchewan and Alberta – did worse, experiencing slight declines in average weekly wages.

Consistent with trend

I have argued here in the past that month-to-month changes should be approached with caution and that annual averages are a more solid basis for drawing conclusions about the economy. However, the latest monthly numbers are firmly in line with the dreary economic picture painted in two other releases from Statscan last month.

One release dealt with family income and showed that in 2014, the number of people living in low-income households rose for the second year in a row. After falling in 2012 to the lowest ever recorded level of 133,940, the number of Nova Scotians – adults and children – living in low income rose to 135,910 in 2013 and 137,150 in 2014. (CANSIM Table 111-0015).

Income assistance rates, frozen in 2013, may account for part of the increase in poverty, but declines in employment and income from employment are also factors. The Canadian Income Survey (CANSIM Table 206-0053), also released last month, showed that in 2014 average employment income for full-year, full-time workers in Nova Scotia was $52,600, down $1,600 from 2013. For Canada as a whole, income in 2014 was up slightly to $61,700. With the Canadian average going up and the Nova Scotia average dropping, employment income in the province fell from 88.3% of the national average in 2013 to 85.3% in 2014. And over 44,000 full-time, full-year workers in Nova Scotia made less than $20,000 in 2014.

So to recap, in Nova Scotia the numbers show that under the austerity-obsessed McNeil Liberals:

  • Employment is down a bit;
  • Full-time employment is down a lot;
  • Student employment, ditto;
  • Wages are down;
  • Income is down;
  • Poverty is up.

Despite all of that, the Liberals are riding high in the polls going into a summer by-election. Go figure.

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About Richard Starr

RICHARD STARR has had careers as a journalist, public servant, broadcaster, political staffer and freelance policy adviser. He is author of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, appearing in everything from Atlantic Insight to Atlantic Progress. A lifelong student of Maritime history, Starr is married to playwright and former MP Wendy Lill. They live in Dartmouth.
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