A new report from Statistics Canada is raising questions about the seriousness of what the Conservative government says is a major national problem: jobs going wanting due to a lack of skilled labour.
At the time of the February budget, Finance Canada published analysis saying the job vacancy rate is on the rise and the situation is poised to get worse over the coming years.
But Statistics Canada – which uses different methodology – reported Tuesday there there were just under 200,000 job vacancies in December, a drop of 21,000 from 12 months earlier. The number of vacancies is the lowest ever recorded since Statistics Canada began tracking the figure in March 2011.
The job vacancy rate – the number of vacant positions divided by total filled and unfilled jobs – dropped from 1.5 per cent to 1.3 per cent.
Statistics Canada also reported there were 6.3 unemployed people for every job vacancy, which was up from 5.7 in December 2012.
The higher ratio was attributed to the drop in job vacancies, as the number of unemployed people – 1.2 million – did not change much.
The report maintains the unusual situation in which two arms of the federal government are providing contradictory statistics on what is a central policy issue for the governing Conservatives.
When Finance Minister Jim Flaherty tabled his Feb. 11 budget, he also released a 54-page "Jobs Report" on the state of the Canadian labour market.
That report claimed the job vacancy rate stood at 4 per cent and has been "increasing steadily since 2009" when it was at 3.1 per cent. It said labour shortages are expected to continue to increase in the coming years.
The Finance report is based on online job posting data compiled by Wanted Analytics, as well as data from Statistics Canada and calculations by Finance Canada.
Independent economists have told The Globe that Finance Canada's numbers cannot easily be replicated or checked.
BMO Chief Economist Doug Porter weighed in on Tuesday's report, saying it supports his previous skepticism.
"We have long been skeptical that labour shortages are a major problem in Canada, aside from some sectors in Alberta and perhaps Saskatchewan," he said in a research note. "The latest job vacancy figures cast further doubt."
TD Bank senior economist Sonya Gulati, who co-authored a report last fall that challenged claims of an imminent skills crisis, said there are some common findings to the data from Statistics Canada and Finance Canada.
Ms. Gulati said in spite of the different methodologies, both reports find labour shortages are more pronounced in certain sectors and regions, specifically Alberta and Saskatchewan.
"There's not a massive labour shortage or a massive labour crisis in Canada but there are pockets of concern," she said. "There's no such thing as a national labour market. You need to look at from a regional perspective."
The Conservative government has made job-training a priority and is preparing to launch a national Canada Job Grant. The subsidy is meant to help unemployed Canadians acquire the skills needed to land a job that is currently vacant.
The Finance Canada report lists comments from numerous employer groups – including manufacturers, the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association and the Information Technology Association of Canada – expressing concern over immediate shortages of skilled labour.
Alexandra Fortier, a spokesperson for federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney, said in an emailed statement that the government is responding to concerns from employers.
"There is conflicting information on skills shortages in Canada. On the one hand, the aggregate labour market information — the data that's extracted from Statistics Canada surveys — tells us that there's not really a skills or labour shortage in Canada. On the other hand, employers across Canada say the biggest challenge they are facing today and into the future is a lack of skilled workers," she said. "This is particularly problematic in certain sectors and regions where there are thousands of jobs going unfilled because no one in the area has the skills required to fill those jobs."
United Steelworkers economist Erin Weir said in a research note that Tuesday's Statistics Canada data "casts further doubt on the notion that Canada is suffering from a shortage of workers."
Mr. Weir said policy makers should focus on creating jobs and supporting the unemployed, "rather than on alleviating phantom labour shortages."
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