Domesday File #1: Attract Yes- Retain Maybe

Domesday File: An occasional series inspired by the Domesday Book, the detailed survey of the wealth and human resources ordered up by William the Conquerer in 1085

Talk about raining on someone’s parade. While the weather outside sprinkled only a few drops of precipitation on Halifax last Friday, the monthly labour force survey from Statistics Canada unleashed a downpour on the economic aspirations of many.

The headline item from the monthly report is a sharp increase in the number of unemployed in Nova Scotia – up 13%, from 39,400 in June 2016 to 43,500 in June 2017. The details are summarized here, the website of Nova Scotia Finance and Treasury Board. That astonishing province-wide increase is eclipsed by the even more startling upsurge of joblessness in Halifax, from 13,500 in June 2016 to 16,900 last month, a jump of 23.7%.

Luckily, one swallow does not a summer make. As noted in previous posts like this one it’s not advisable to get too excited over a single month’s job report – a caution which may explain the lack of media coverage of Fridays’ figures. Monthly reports are based on surveys and are subject to sampling anomalies. Annual averages are much more reliable But with that caveat in mind, it is worth digging deeper into the June jobs report. Here’s why.

Labour Force Up 

It has been a constant refrain since at least the advent of the Ivany report that attracting and retaining immigrants is vital for the Nova Scotia economy.

Thanks to an expanded provincial nominee program and an influx of Syrian refugees, immigration to Nova Scotia has exceeded 6,500 since the beginning of 2016, helping to increase the province’s population to a new high.

Stephen McNeil talked proudly about this during the recent election campaign, as did Ray Ivany himself, last week on CBC radio. He pointed to population growth as evidence that progress is being made on the goals set out in the 2014 “Now or Never” report he authored. And the Canadian Press put out  a story last week claiming –based mainly on year-old immigration numbers and construction cranes on the skyline – that “Halifax is booming.”

And to be sure, there is some good news in Friday’s StatsCanada release. The surge in immigration and population is reflected by an increase of about 5,000 over the last year in both the working age population (15 years and over) and the labour force. That’s a boon for a province with an aging population and shrinking work force.

Employment Flat

But so far, that’s where the good news ends. The rest of the report is analogous to dark clouds overtaking the sun before the rain comes pouring down on the parade.

Job growth has not kept pace with the expanding work force. Province-wide the increase from last June was only 1,500, hence the spike in unemployment as a larger work force went after jobs that were not there in sufficient numbers. In Halifax, a small increase in the labour force (500) combined with a large (2,400) drop in jobs led to that stunning (except apparently to the news media) rise in unemployment.

This may turn out to be a thundershower, a one-month wonder, with employment rebounding in July and pointing the way to a brighter economic future. But if it isn’t, the recent and much celebrated population growth could be just transitory.

As we have heard repeatedly, the task in Nova Scotia and the rest of the region is to attract and retain immigrants. A number of factors determine whether immigrants to Nova Scotia stay in the province, but employment is a big one. Without jobs, most of the new immigrants to Nova Scotia could end up joining a different procession – the familiar one seeking opportunities somewhere down the road.

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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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