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Caterpillar trucks working in the oil sands in Alberta. (CATERPILLAR INC.)
Caterpillar trucks working in the oil sands in Alberta. (CATERPILLAR INC.)

The Roundup: How the oil boom turned young men away from school Add to ...

Are good jobs bad for education?

If Canada is worried about a skills shortage (and it is), maybe the continuation of our economic funk is just what the doctor ordered. Because when the economy is booming, it’s pretty hard to convince people to step off the gravy train and go to school.

Statistics Canada this week released a study on youth education and employment trends prior to the 2008 recession. It found that in the oil-rich provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland, hourly wages for men aged 17-24 surged 21 per cent during the oil-boom years of 2001 to 2008, more than four times the rate of wage growth in the other provinces. Employment rates for that group also surged by five to six percentage points in the oil-producing provinces over that period; in the rest of the country, the group’s employment rate rose just two percentage points.

But the high wages and plentiful jobs seem to have been a strong lure away from pursuing an education. In Alberta, the proportion of 17-to-24-year-old males in secondary or postsecondary education slumped to 37 per cent in 2008 from 44 per cent in 2003; the percentage in full-time university dipped to 16 per cent from 17 per cent. In the non-oil-producing provinces, secondary and postsecondary enrolment for the group rose to 53 per cent from 52 per cent in the same period, while full-time university attendance cvlimbed to 24 per cent from 20 per cent.

Handing out jobs for Christmas, U.S.-style

What was the trendiest U.S. Christmas gift of 2013? A job.

Work force consultants Challenger Gray & Christmas Inc. (no pun intended) reported this week that U.S. retail hirings totalled 176,500 in December, up 63 per cent from a year earlier and the biggest holiday-season hiring spree since 2005. For the entire fourth quarter, hirings in the retail sector totalled 801,100, a 14-year high. (The numbers aren’t seasonally adjusted, so they reflect actual hiring levels.) It noted that Macy’s Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp. each ramped up staff by about 80,000 for the holidays.

While the numbers speak to a surprisingly strong holiday shopping season (this week’s U.S. retail sales report showed a 0.7-per-cent surge in non-auto sales in December), they may not be the gift that lasts.

“Although hiring was better than expected, those employers may adjust staffing back to previous levels, or worse, cut even deeper to eliminate costs,” John Challenger, chief executive officer of the firm, said in a news release. That could weigh on U.S. employment numbers in the next couple of months, at least on an unadjusted basis. As for the seasonally adjusted numbers that are typically cited in the headlines, they are supposed to smooth out these sorts of calendar-related fluctuations – but in this case, the hiring was so substantial that the seasonal adjustments may underestimate the full impact.

The annual Davos pilgrimage

It’s the Lollapalooza for economy geeks: The World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in the picturesque Alpine village of Davos, Switzerland, begins just five sleeps from now, on Jan. 22. The gathering is a who’s who of international political leaders, business bigwigs, non-governmental organizations and economic intellectuals; 229 speakers (everyone from John Baird to Kofi Annan to Bill Gates to Matt Damon) are crammed into the four-day program. On its website, the WEF plans to live-webcast more than 60 of the sessions.

One of the most important and anticipated sessions is sure to be the Global Economic Outlook, on the final day of the event, Saturday, Jan. 25. Among the heavyweights taking part in that session are the leaders of three of the world’s most powerful central banks – Bank of England head Mark Carney, European Central Bank president Mario Draghi and Bank of Japan boss Haruhiko Kuroda – as we approach what is shaping up to be a critical pivot point for global monetary policy. International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde is also on the panel.

The high cost of U.S. pennies, and nickels

The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. Mint is looking at getting rid of the penny (just as the Royal Canadian Mint did last year) – but it might be even more focused on revamping the nickel. Seems it costs 1.8 cents to make each penny, but a whopping 9.4 cents to make each nickel. The U.S. Mint has wrung about as much cost savings as it can out of penny production over the years, and probably can’t make them any cheaper. But it figures there’s still room for improvement on the nickel and other coins, by changing materials and making them lighter.

Here’s an idea – why not phase out the existing nickel, and re-brand the existing penny as a 5-cent piece? I’ve just saved the U.S. Mint 81 per cent of its nickel-producing costs. You’re welcome.

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