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Toronto Hydro crews work in Scarborough, Ont., on December 29, 2013. The public utilities sector, along with public administration and transportation currently have the strongest job outlook in Canada, while hiring plans in construction and manufacturing have softened.

J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail

Canadian employers are more reticent about expanding payrolls, with the hiring outlook falling to its lowest level in more than four years according to a new survey.

Manpower Canada's latest quarterly employment survey shows fourth-quarter hiring plans are down from both the prior quarter and last year's levels.

The restraint echoes a Statistics Canada report last week that showed the economy shed 11,000 jobs last month as the private sector slashed jobs. Manpower's survey shows regional differences remain, with employers in the West more upbeat than those in Ontario and eastwards. Moreover, global competition and rising costs for inputs such as gasoline and hydro mean many employers are focusing more on productivity and controlling costs than adding to headcount.

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"Employers are cautious in this environment, so they're using variable labour, part-time labour and not putting people full time on their payrolls because of that caution," said Byrne Luft, vice-president of operations for Manpower Canada, a staffing firm.

Twelve per cent of Canadian employers plan to boost staffing levels in the October-to-December period, while 7 per cent see job cuts, the survey of more than 1,900 employers shows. Eight in 10 expect current staffing levels to be unchanged and 2 per cent are unsure about hiring plans.

Plans remain strongest in the West, with employers in Ontario and Quebec more wary of making new hires. Caution has also grown in Atlantic Canada, where intentions fell to the lowest level since regional analysis began in 2004.

Tight margins, inflation and competitive pressures especially among manufacturers "are not a formula for generating jobs," Mr. Luft said. Rather, the focus "has been about productivity and efficiency in every industry right across the board."

Among sectors, public administration along with transportation and public utilities have the strongest outlook. Hiring plans in construction and manufacturing have softened. Friday's Labour Force Survey showed the share of Canadians working in the manufacturing sector has ebbed to a record low.

Another factor may be at play, at least in Ontario where the country's most populous province saw a minimum-wage hike take effect this summer. "A lot of businesses put the brakes on bringing on a new staff in order to see how they got through the first season under this," said Kithio Mwanzia, interim chief executive officer at the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce.

Among cities, Red Deer, Alta., and Victoria have among the brightest outlooks while the Cape Breton, N.S., area has the weakest. (A separate survey on the Canadian job market, released in August by Express Employment Professionals, showed Wood Buffalo, Alta., and Grande Prairie, in Alta., along with Regina currently have the strongest demand for workers).

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Globally, Manpower's survey shows India and Taiwan have the strongest hiring outlook while Spain and Italy have the weakest.

The report comes after Friday's Labour Force Survey showed hiring stalled in August as the private-sector cut a record 111,800 positions, the public sector added 14,000 jobs and self employment rose by 86,900. (Monthly numbers are volatile, but average job gains show a muted hiring climate this year, with average gains of about 10,000 per month).

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