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The professional, scientific and technical services sector in Canada led the country’s job growth in 2013.Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail

Grim news of job losses are overshadowing a bright spot in Canada's labour market: Employment in professional services has never been higher.

The professional, scientific and technical services sector, which tends to pay above-average wages, quietly hit its highest job level on record in December. The sector led the country's job growth last year, with an increase of 85,500, a notable gain given the economy created the fewest number of monthly jobs since 2009.

It is now the fourth-largest sector by employment in Canada, with more workers than in construction. This industry includes accountants, engineers, architects, lawyers, research-and-development specialists, surveyors, consultants, graphic designers and marketers. Its share of total employment has climbed to 7.6 per cent from 4.9 per cent two decades ago, according to Statistics Canada data compiled for The Globe and Mail.

"Canada is definitely not just a hewer of wood and drawer of water," said Daniel Schwanen, assistant vice-president of research at the C.D. Howe Institute, who published a paper last month calling the expansion in tradeable service jobs such as engineering, design and architecture an "overlooked success story."

"There's a new kind of middle-class, good job that's emerging."

That may prove cold comfort to the hundreds of thousands of laid-off factory workers in the past decade, many of whom have since struggled to work with comparable pay or hours. But there's a key lesson for the younger generation on the cusp of entering the work force: These types of jobs also tend to require higher education.

It's a sector characterized by its reliance on worker skills (rather than equipment or materials), one that typically requires a university or college education. And unlike call-centre or factory jobs, it's not an area where jobs are easily outsourced to countries with lower labour costs.

The pay tends to be higher. Average earnings in the sector are $1,298.80 a week compared with a national average of $927.61 for all sectors, Statistics Canada's payrolls data show. Moreover, wages in areas such as accounting, technology and administration are expected to grow about 4 per cent this year, according to a Robert Half survey. Its list of hot jobs this year include mobile app and software developers, and customer service managers.

"In today's competitive market, there's a trend toward hiring professionals who have the specialized skills required to help companies achieve their business goals," said Greg Scileppi, president of Robert Half's international staffing operations.

Canada's labour market has been slowing, and economists expect Statistics Canada to report on Friday that about 15,000 jobs were created in January, with the unemployment rate inching down to 7.1 per cent.

While much focus has been on the demise of well-paid factory jobs and the rise of lower-paying work, the growth of professional services has been largely unnoticed, Mr. Schwanen said.

It's not the only area on the services side of the economy to tally growth. Health care and social assistance employment also hit a record in December. All told, the share of services jobs has grown to 78.1 per cent of total employment from 74 per cent two decades ago, reflecting a shift in Canada's economy.

Correspondingly, the share of jobs on the goods-producing side of the economy has shrunk to 21.9 per cent. Factory jobs, once the key source of employment in the country, tumbled to 9.8 per cent as a share of the total last year from 14 per cent in 1994, Statistics Canada data show. Jobs in professional services weren't nearly as hard hit by losses during the recession as other fields, says Tara Talbot, vice-president of human resources at jobs-search site Workopolis. And, "these were also amongst the areas where we've seen the greatest post-recession increases in hiring."

Its site has seen a 5-per-cent increase in job postings for positions in this category, led by growth in Ontario, Quebec and Alberta.