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The Canadian economy created more than 35,000 jobs last month fuelled by part-time and self-employed work.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Canada's labour market is holding up in the face of grim news, though most of last month's job growth was among the self-employed, whose ranks logged the biggest jump in three years.

And while January's job gains topped forecasts, economists caution that employment tends to be a lagging indicator. Many recent job-cut announcements – triggered by falling oil prices, retail competition and wobbly growth – have yet to show up in the numbers.

Canadian employers created 35,400 jobs last month and the jobless rate fell a notch to 6.6 per cent, Statistics Canada said Friday. Details of the report were mixed. Growth in part-time positions outweighed a drop in full-time work. Self-employment rose while the number of salaried workers fell. And much of the growth came from Alberta's non-energy sector – a province that is likely to see slowing growth as the impact of lower oil prices starts to bite.

The report "point toward an economy struggling for momentum even before having to adapt to the impact of the oil price decline," noted David Watt, chief economist at HSBC Bank Canada, citing year-over-year job creation that has been mostly below 1 per cent for more than a year. "As the economy deals with the oil price shock, we expect the economy to struggle to match the 121,300 jobs created in 2014."

Most economists see sluggish job growth in the coming months. A raft of recent layoff announcements – including 17,600 workers at Target, 350 at Tim Hortons and a growing number in the oil and mining sector – have not yet shown up in the data.

"We remain cautious about the Canadian jobs outlook," said Matthieu Arseneau, senior economist at National Bank Financial. Given that 84 per cent of the employment gains last year were in Western Canada and about a third in the construction sector, "something that will likely not be repeated," he expects a moderation in the labour market this year.

A key consolation is the U.S. economy, which has added more than a million jobs in the past three months – momentum that will buoy Canadian manufacturers and exporters. A weak Canadian dollar and lower interest rates should help businesses in the sector, eventually spurring hiring.

The number of self-employed Canadians rose by 41,100 last month – the biggest increase since December, 2011 – while salaried employees in the private and public sector fell by 5,700. In the past year, self-employment has risen 2.2 per cent while salaried employment is up 0.5 per cent.

Who are these newly self-employed? The largest growth has been among core-aged women, between 25 and 54, in the past year, followed by men over 55. Among sectors, the steepest year-over-year increase in self-employment was in construction, professional and scientific services, and health care.

The self-employed now represent about 15.6 per cent of all working Canadians – up from 15 per cent in July, though below 2009 recessionary levels when it rose to 16.3 per cent, noted Statscan analyst Andrew Fields. And, in general, older workers are most likely to be working for themselves – about a quarter of them are self-employed.

Among provinces, Alberta continued to create jobs last month – despite oil-sector losses. Alberta had the strongest employment growth last year, though "this will likely not be the case this year as the downturn in oil prices is weighing on business confidence levels within the province," noted IHS Global Insight senior principal economist Arlene Kish.

Canada's participation rate was unchanged at 65.7 per cent last month, its lowest level since 2000.

Job market conditions, as tracked by Toronto-Dominion Bank's labour market indicator, have improved "substantially" over the past half year, the bank noted.

Still, the country's relatively low jobless rate masks lingering slack in the labour market. "Sustained weakness" in the labour force participation rate among those aged 25 to 54 is a factor, while weakness remains in year-over-year growth in average weekly hours worked and average hourly wages of employees.

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