The number of jobs going wanting is on the decline just as the Conservative government prepares major changes to the temporary foreign worker program.
Statistics Canada reports that the average number of vacant positions in Canada during the first quarter of 2014 dropped to 206,000, down from 223,000 for the first quarter of 2013. The national job vacancy rate from the first quarter of last year to this year dropped from 1.5 per cent to 1.4 per cent.
Critics say the decline undercuts the justification for bringing hundreds of thousands of temporary foreign workers into the country each year. However, those who say the program is needed to fill specific regional shortages see vindication in the detailed numbers released Tuesday by Statscan.
(What is the Temporary Foreign Worker Program? Read The Globe's easy explanation)
The report shows Alberta has the highest job vacancy rate at 2.3 per cent, followed by Manitoba at 2 per cent. It also shows the accommodation and food services sector – which fears it may be hardest hit by changes to the temporary foreign worker program – has the highest job vacancy rate in the country at 2.7 per cent. Restaurants Canada says the vacancy rate likely rose even higher in April when the federal government temporarily banned restaurants from accessing the TFW program in response to allegations of abuse.
Edmonton-Leduc Conservative MP James Rajotte, who chairs the House of Commons finance committee, said the details of Statscan's report are in line with the regional shortages for specific skills that he sees in his riding.
"I understand the concerns of Canadians – they want Canadians to have first access to jobs – I completely agree with that and I agree with dealing with abuse in the [TFW] program," he said. "But we do have to be responsive to the fact that we have different economic employment realities across the country."
Employment Minister Jason Kenney is expected to announce major policy changes to the TFW program as early as this week. The minister recently said the government plans to spend $15-million a year on two new Statistics Canada surveys that will provide the detailed regional data on job vacancies that critics say is sorely lacking.
NDP MP Jinny Sims said the latest Statscan report shows the current program is not needed.
"With those kind of numbers out there, I don't see how we can justify any kind of a temporary foreign worker program unless it is sector-specific and there is a proven shortage in that area," she said.
Debate over the methodology of measuring job vacancies has played out in Ottawa for months after the Parliamentary Budget Office said Finance Canada was producing an erroneously high job vacancy rate by relying on software that scans online job boards such as Kijiji. That approach produced a job vacancy rate above 4 per cent.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business provides its own rate by surveying about 1,000 business owners a month. Its numbers for the first quarter will be out soon. However its most recent report for the last quarter of 2013 found 296,000 full and part-time vacancies, for a job vacancy rate of 2.5 per cent.
Ted Mallett, vice-president and chief economist with the CFIB, said he believes Statistics Canada's approach underestimates the number of vacant jobs. Mr. Mallett said he welcomes the government's decision to fund more detailed research, but noted that it will take years before that information will provide reliable data on labour trends.
In the interim, Mr. Mallett said the CFIB is concerned the Conservative government will make major changes to the TFW program without clear information on the state of Canada's labour market.
"I wouldn't want to see too many changes made without having the knowledge or the data associated with [those new surveys]," he said.