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Workers at the General Motors Oshawa assembly plant Aug 22, 2013. On the line are Impala, Camaro, Buick Regal and Cadillac vehicles.Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Statistics Canada says it knows there is a gap in its job vacancy numbers, but it can't afford to solve the problem.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Alison Hale, the director of Statscan's labour statistics division, said launching a new survey that would capture vacancies by region and by specific skill would cost "well over" $5-million.

Auditor-General Michael Ferguson reported this week that the existing data from Statscan leave many users wanting more detailed information. While Statscan reports national monthly job vacancy numbers broken down by province, the information does not reveal which regions of a province are experiencing shortages or which specific skills are in demand.

What that missing data might show is central to the heated debate over the federal government's reforms of the temporary foreign worker program and employment insurance, which have been changed in response to perceived labour shortages.

"I know a lot of people are talking about wanting very detailed occupation [data] for very small levels of geography," said Ms. Hale. "From my experience, those are the expensive surveys."

Because of that high cost, she said there are no current plans to produce that missing information.

"We recognize there's a gap. People would be interested in having detailed job vacancy information, but currently, within the program that we have funding for, the information that we have out now is what we can produce," she said.

The Globe recently reported that in 2011, Employment and Social Development Canada contracted Statistics Canada at a cost of $4.6-million to conduct a business survey on skills shortages, but the data were never analyzed or released due to budget constraints at Statistics Canada.

A spokesperson for Employment and Social Development Canada said Friday that the department is in discussions with Statscan about reviving that data and that the department is prepared to pay for that analysis. The spokesperson also said that better labour information will be on the agenda for a meeting of federal and provincial labour ministers this summer.

Over the past two years, Statscan's core budget, excluding spending on the census or contracted surveys, has been cut by more than 7 per cent – or $29.3-million – and it has lost 767 staff, or 18.5 per cent of its work force.

In 2012, when then-immigration minister Jason Kenney introduced measures to make it faster for businesses to use the temporary foreign worker program, he said skills shortages are "right across the whole spectrum" and are an issue "throughout the country."

However, since his appointment last year as Employment Minister – where he has taken the lead on reforming the foreign worker program – he now says there is no national skills shortage, only pressures in specific fields and regions.

Many business groups insist there are real labour shortages in Canada, but the data gap means Statistics Canada has no official numbers to back up that claim.

Finance Canada raised eyebrows on budget day in February by reporting a national job vacancy rate of 4 per cent, which was well above the 1.3 per cent reported by Statistics Canada.

The Parliamentary Budget Office later discovered that Finance's numbers were higher because it relied on an online software program that led the government to misinterpret multiple postings of the same online jobs on the classified site Kijiji. A recently released survey by Employment and Social Development also used online postings but removed Kijiji and similar sites as a source, resulting in numbers that point to a vacancy rate of 1.5 per cent. Still, that department suggested it would use Kijiji data in the future.

NDP finance critic Nathan Cullen said the government is relying on anecdotes to rationalize its policy decisions.

"They're definitely not relying on data, because it doesn't exist," he said. "Certainly collecting more data about something so important as the labour market would be important, because the government spends billions on programs, essentially blind."

Statscan's Ms. Hale said reporting job vacancies used to be as simple as measuring column inches of help wanted ads in newspaper classifieds, but scanning online job information is a problem because of duplication.

"It's basically used for a specific purpose, and then trying to use it for other purposes is difficult," she said. "We don't really have any plans in that direction."

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