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New Engineer graduate, Jessica Mandville, will start work with Lindsay Construction on May 9. (Paul Daly)
New Engineer graduate, Jessica Mandville, will start work with Lindsay Construction on May 9. (Paul Daly)

Welcome to St. John's, the hottest job market in the country Add to ...

Cementing Newfoundland and Labrador's ascendancy as a "have" province, its capital is enjoying a lower jobless rate than such long-time Canadian powerhouses as Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto.

The province's overall job growth streaked ahead of the rest of the country over the past year, according to figures released Friday by Statistics Canada, expanding 6.9 per cent compared with 1.7 per cent nationally. That has left the jobless rate in St. John's at just 5.7 per cent. Calgary's rate is 5.9 per cent, Vancouver's 8.4 per cent, and Toronto's 8.5 per cent.

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Long plagued by sky-high unemployment, Newfoundland has seen its job market buoyed by its offshore energy resources, but the wealth has filtered through to other industries. Natural resources - which include not only oil but the more traditional industries of fishing and forestry - added about 2,000 workers, Statistics Canada said. Construction, manufacturing and trade grew even more, and public administration also saw a huge jump.

Companies in the capital report having trouble finding employees, and some students are snapped up straight out of school. Among them is Jessica Mandville, who just graduated Memorial University as a civil engineer and was offered a job the same day as her last exam. The 23-year-old St. John's resident starts Monday as a project engineer with the Newfoundland division of the construction firm J.W. Lindsay Enterprises. She was the last of her circle of close friends in the university program to secure a position. But she wasn't concerned.

"It seemed to be picking up," she said Friday. "For civil engineering, in particular, it seemed there was a lot of work."

Her confidence and success are emblematic of the hot labour market. The Statistics Canada figures show the jobless rate for Newfoundland and Labrador tumbled to 11.1 per cent last month, from 12.4 per cent a month earlier. The province created 15,000 positions between April of this year and last. Unemployment is now at its lowest level since at least 1976, when record keeping began, the agency said.

The situation now is a far cry from September, 1984, when the jobless rate peaked at 22.7 per cent. Through much of the 1980s and 1990s, it was above 17 per cent.

The current demand for employees means that Ms. Mandville's experience is not unusual. Greg Hussey, owner of the home-building firm Karwood Contracting Ltd., said they have hired four or five people straight out of school.

"This is the best economy we've ever seen," he said. "It's been steadily piling up for about 10 years."

As newly optimistic people come back from the rest of Canada - in 2008, the province recorded its first population growth in 16 years - they are again spending money locally. Mr. Hussey noted that people returning to put down new roots in Newfoundland are among his firm's customer base.

In Long Harbour, west of St. John's, town manager Ken Kelly said the building of a Vale Inco nickel processing plant has attracted workers from across Canada and outside the country. The roughly 80 jobs so far is not a large number in the broader picture, but it's a meaningful jump for a small community.

"Three or four years ago you put a house on the market and it would sit," Mr. Kelly said. "There's a joke here now: You stand still long enough someone will put a for-sale sign on you."

Adding to the optimism in the area, a refitting of the refinery in nearby Come by Chance will temporarily require a tripling of the number of workers.

"Firm crude oil prices and steady production levels are contributing to this impressive performance," said Sonya Gulati, economist at Toronto-Dominion Bank. Not only does the province have a record low jobless rate, "provincial unemployment has now fallen by a staggering 3.8 percentage points since July, 2010, hands down the biggest decrease seen across the country over this period."

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