Eco­nomic wor­ries re­main de­spite up­beat job fig­ures

Calgary Herald - - CITY+REGION - BILL KAUF­MANN BKauf­[email protected]­

Mar­tial Si­mard is one of many Cal­gar­i­ans cast adrift by an em­bat­tled en­ergy in­dus­try to seek em­ploy­ment wher­ever they can find it.

On Fri­day, news that 24,000 jobs were cre­ated in Al­berta last month along with lower un­em­ploy­ment num­bers couldn’t shake his con­cerns and those of some economists over a di­min­ished eco­nomic out­look.

Statis­tics Canada re­vealed em­ploy­ment growth in Novem­ber that sur­prised some economists, along with a one per­cent­age point drop in Al­berta’s job­less rate to 6.3 per cent.

Cal­gary ’s job­less rate fell slightly to 7.9 per cent from 8.2 per cent, while na­tional un­em­ploy­ment dropped to 5.6 per cent, the low­est level since 1976.

Even so, chem­i­cal en­gi­neer Si­mard, who re­cently worked at a lo­cal golf course and has un­der­gone train­ing as a car­rier and mail sorter with Canada Post, viewed those im­prove­ments skep­ti­cally.

“The jobs are not as good as they were be­fore ... you have to find some­thing else,” said Si­mard, 45, who was laid off in the oil­patch in April 2016.

“A lot of peo­ple have run out of em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance and don’t show up in those fig­ures.”

Economists like ATB’s Todd Hirsch say a closer look at those Stat­sCan num­bers re­veal a pro­vin­cial and Cal­gary econ­omy that’s still await­ing a boost.

“It was the month we’ve been watch­ing the oil price col­lapse and I was ex­pect­ing a neg­a­tive job re­port and in­stead you get this as­tound­ingly strong num­ber of 24,000 jobs,” said Hirsch.

“But it’s al­ways bet­ter to look at the 12-month com­par­i­son, then you look at the sec­tors where jobs are cre­ated.”

Since Novem­ber 2017, Hirsch noted the health care/so­cial as­sis­tance field saw 20,300 new jobs while the ser­vice sec­tor added 41,200 po­si­tions.

“For the most part, those aren’t the re­ally high-pay­ing jobs like the en­ergy sec­tor,” said Hirsch.

Al­berta’s nat­u­ral re­sources sec­tor, which in­cludes lum­ber, quar­ry­ing, fish­ing and oil and gas, added 4,800 po­si­tions over the past year but just 600 in the last month.

The re­cent crush­ing oil price squeeze, which has seen some re­lief in the past week, could see even those mod­est gains wiped out and more, said Hirsch.

And a lack of other good eco­nomic news could only ex­ac­er­bate that, he added.

“If there’s noth­ing pos­i­tive on the pipe­lines go­ing for­ward, I do think we’re set for more lay­offs in the en­ergy patch,” he said.

The Stat­sCan fig­ures are gen­er­ally pos­i­tive, along with the fact full-time em­ploy­ment in­creased while part-time work fell, said Ron Knee­bone, an econ­o­mist with the Univer­sity of Cal­gary’s School of Pub­lic Pol­icy.

But a wor­ri­some trend in Al­berta is the av­er­age du­ra­tion of un­em­ploy­ment, which in­creased from 20.8 weeks in Oc­to­ber to 23.5 weeks in Novem­ber.

“That’s a big jump, peo­ple who are get­ting jobs are the peo­ple who were un­em­ployed for a short pe­riod of time and those not get­ting jobs are un­em­ployed for a long time,” said Knee­bone, adding a decade ago a seven- to 10-week job­less pe­riod was the norm.

That num­ber hit a peak of 25 weeks in June 2017, he said, and had been fall­ing un­til last month, a wor­ri­some change.

Those left on the side­lines for a lengthy du­ra­tion, es­pe­cially if they’re older, risk per­ma­nent un­em­ploy­ment, he said.

A Cal­gar­ian who works with lo­cal so­cial agen­cies to de­velop pol­icy al­ter­na­tives said the four years since the en­ergy slump be­gan have worn down many af­fected by it.

“There’s a real sense of ‘Are we ever go­ing to come out of this?’ ” said Franco Savoia, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Vi­brant Com­mu­ni­ties Cal­gary.

Dis­tress-type coun­selling and food bank use re­main in high de­mand in Cal­gary.

While the Stat­sCan fig­ures do re­flect the real­ity of some em­ploy­ment in­creases, those are usu­ally jobs that pay con­sid­er­ably less than oil­patch po­si­tions that may never re­turn due to in­creased in­dus­try ef­fi­cien­cies, he said.

And last month’s na­tional un­em­ploy­ment rate — 5.6 per cent — has echoes of a past Al­berta, he said.

“The na­tional num­bers look re­ally good. Typ­i­cally, that’s what Al­berta was,” said Savoia.

The con­tin­ued eco­nomic uncer­tainty, he said, makes con­sid­er­ing the idea of a pro­vin­cial guar­an­teed in­come pro­gram all the more rel­e­vant.


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