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Minister of Employment and Social Development Jason Kenney called Kijiji ‘the new classified ads.’Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The Conservative government is defending its use of Kijiji to support its claims of a growing skills shortage in Canada, even though the Parliamentary Budget Officer says the website's wonky job data are throwing off the government's math.

Ministers were peppered with questions Wednesday from opposition MPs who ridiculed the government for choosing to rely on data based on an outside software program that searches for online job ads – including on Kijiji – rather than reports from Statistics Canada. Those reports say surveys of employers show job vacancies are declining, not rising.

"Kijiji's a great place to sell a bike, but this is no way to run an economy," said NDP finance critic Nathan Cullen after Question Period.

The reaction followed a Globe and Mail report that revealed a key factor as to why job-vacancy data released by Finance Canada this year on budget day has been out of sync with other sources.

Finance Canada's data is based on a software program created by Wanted Analytics that sends web spiders across online job boards to build a database of available positions. However, the Conference Board of Canada, which also uses Wanted Analytics, recently decided to remove Kijiji as a source because it was creating "instability."

Labour and skills shortages were one of the key reasons Ottawa expanded Canada's controversial temporary foreign worker program. The number of temporary foreign workers reached more than 200,000 in 2012, nearly doubling the number from 2000. That rapid growth sparked concern that it was dampening wages and on-the-job training efforts, as well as acting as a disincentive to hire. It also sparked concern over abusive hiring practices, and the government has since tightened the rules.

The PBO noted this week that by removing Kijiji as a source, the rising trend line highlighted by Finance Canada would instead become more of a flat line.

Still, the government and the PBO agree that there are regional skills shortages, particularly in Saskatchewan.

Federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney defended his government's use of Kijiji, but acknowledged there are technical concerns with the data including the need to weed out repeated postings for the same position.

"People are laughing at Kijiji, but it's the new classified ads," he told CTV's Power Play. "I would just invite some of these economists – who sit in front of their spreadsheets of inadequate data trying to figure out the world – I wish they would actually go out into the real world and talk to employers like I do all the time."

Mr. Kenney said critics should recognize the challenge of producing reliable labour data in a world of online job boards.

"Here's the bottom line, everyone who is dealing with this debate should have a little bit of humility and admit that none of us know exactly what is going on in the labour market of today."

Economist Don Drummond said better information can be produced at a cost of about $39-million a year. He was part of an advisory panel in 2009 that made dozens of recommendations to improve labour-market data, yet few suggestions were implemented.

The former TD chief economist would like to see one entity, such as Mr. Kenney's department Employment and Social Development Canada or Statscan, "pick up the baton" and take responsibility for more detailed and current labour market data at the national and provincial level.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Kijiji said Wednesday the company was surprised to learn that its job postings are being collected and sent to the government to produce reports. Chris Harris, Kijiji's head of Jobs and Housing, said the job postings on the site are rising in part because the site itself has had major growth in terms of popularity.

"We're not surprised that we may appear to be an outlier," he said in an e-mail.

Labour market indicators help shape public policy on everything from the number of temporary foreign workers Canada admits each year to employment insurance rules and where to invest in skills training. A clear picture of vacancies can point to whether the labour market is tightening or seeing more slack. It can also guide policies that might encourage some workers to move from one province to another. It could also influence personal decisions of Canadians to move from one occupation, such as teaching, to a high-demand one, such as plumbing or carpentry.

Liberal MP and deputy leader Ralph Goodale said the incident raises questions as to the way the Conservatives develop public policy.

"To have a very informal anecdotal source of information trumping the government's own official source of statistics is bad public policy in the extreme," he said. "Especially now as there is accumulating evidence outside of Statistics Canada that Statistics Canada was indeed right."

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