Canada is a nation of two labour markets: Alberta, and everywhere else.
Nine in 10 net new jobs in the past year have been created in Alberta alone, or 82,300 out of the total 94,700 across all the provinces. Alberta has tallied year-over-year employment growth of 3.8 per cent, more than seven times the pace of the national average.
Resource-rich Alberta has long been the country's labour-market hot spot. But the divide is notable with fresh evidence showing wages are galloping ahead in the province, while workers continue to boost its population numbers.
Alberta's budget, released this week, also reflects better times. Higher oil production and tax revenues will lift the province to a $2.6-billion surplus in the coming year, the government said.
Alberta's median hourly wage is almost $3 above the national average, near the widest gap in at least 17 years, according to Bank of Montreal, which is luring workers. There are currently 6,000 job postings for Alberta, according to online job-search site Workopolis, with more of the province's employers looking further afield to find workers.
"We're seeing upward momentum," said Joanne Hastie, recruitment staffing consultant at Express Employment Professionals in Calgary, where the city's jobless rate fell one notch last month to 4.7 per cent.
Activity at the staffing agency was relatively slow last fall as many oil and gas companies had projects on hold, she said. Now, "as the new year has come in, that's definitely changed," with strengthening in the energy sector buoying other industries. Business developers, industrial salespeople and customer service reps are in particular demand.
For years, Canada's economic story has been one of the West versus the rest. That's shifted recently as a slowdown in mining and potash weigh on the other provinces, says BMO senior economist Robert Kavcic. "Now it looks like Alberta and the rest."
He pegs Alberta's economic growth this year at 3.5 per cent, far stronger than for any other province.
Job creation has stagnated in the rest of the country, with Statistics Canada noting little change in the past half year. Employers shed 7,000 positions last month and the country's jobless rate held at 7 per cent, the same as it was a year ago.
One reason for the jobless rate not creeping higher is an ebbing participation rate, which hit a 12-year low of 66.2 per cent in February. A declining labour force participation rate, which is also occurring in the United States, likely reflects both a structural shift, triggered by retiring baby boomers, and a cyclical dip stemming from discouraged workers, noted Paul Ashworth, chief North America economist at Capital Economics.
For Canada, "our best guess is that it reflects a mix of the two, meaning that the Bank of Canada shouldn't necessarily take comfort from the fact that the unemployment rate hasn't risen."
Employment has also increased in Ontario and Saskatchewan over the past year. It's flat in New Brunswick and has fallen in every other province compared with February of last year.
Average job gains have ebbed to just 3,000 a month over the past half year, and the country's year-over-year employment growth of 0.5 per cent is "among the slowest non-recession readings in the past 30 years," said David Watt, chief economist at HSBC Bank Canada. Much of the weakness has stemmed from the public-sector side, a reflection of tighter government budgets.
Youth employment is another soft spot. Employment has fallen by 36,300 over the past year, and the youth jobless rate is 13.6 per cent, unchanged from a year earlier. Canada's broadest measure of unemployment – which includes discouraged workers and part-timers who would rather work full time, shows the youth rate has climbed to 20 per cent from 19.8 per cent a year earlier. (Before the recession it had been as low as 13 per cent for young people aged 15 to 24.)
Still, details of Friday's report were better than the headline would suggest. Most of the jobs created last month were full time and in the private sector. Among sectors, natural resources added to headcount as did manufacturing, an industry that had previously been shedding workers.