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Jobs Tackling job insecurity at core of election pledges

Eudora Lee, a PhD student, works at one of the computers at Youth Employment Services at the 555 Richmond St. West in Toronto. Lee is looking for a job at a non- profit or social enterprise company.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

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Michelle Bennette needs to find a job by next spring at the latest, when her employment insurance benefits run out.

Eudora Lee, now completing her PhD, is similarly stressed.

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As is Michelle Switzer, who can't find work in her chosen field.

Ms. Bennette, Ms. Lee and Ms. Switzer are in many ways the faces of this election campaign: Almost 1.35 million Canadians are out of work, and many in the labour force are feeling insecure.

The campaign is being fought against a backdrop of a sluggish labour market, which may be showing resilience in the face of slumping economic growth this year, but with a pace of hiring that has hardly been torrid.

Rowan O'Grady, president of recruiting firm Hays Canada, sees it as "flat," with slumping confidence among employers in Alberta and cautious hiring elsewhere.

And talk of how Canada has just come through a technical recession certainly isn't helping.

"[Even] employers and markets who were unaffected by the oil industry ask, 'Should I be adding aggressively [to the] head count now when the news is this negative?'" Mr. O'Grady said.

"It's unfortunate because just a year ago, the total job market was quite healthy."

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Restoring that confidence is a key aim for the federal parties.

Monthly numbers bump around, but a six-month average shows job gains of a muted 13,300 per month – that average was mostly above 20,000 in 2010 and 2011 – while unemployment has climbed to a one-year high of 7 per cent as more people look for work. Hiring over the past year has tilted toward government jobs, with expansion in areas such as health care and postsecondary teaching, while the private sector has been more reticent.

The private-sector represents two-thirds of total employment in Canada, but has accounted for just 24 per cent of jobs created year to date, noted HSBC economist David Watt.

That's "consistent with a difficult economic environment," he said. "Whether we went through a real recession or only a technical recession, the trend in private-sector hiring points to an economy that is struggling for traction."

Staffing levels are not about to surge. Hiring plans for the fourth quarter are the weakest since Canada was emerging from the last recession six years ago, according to Manpower's last quarterly survey.

Take Ms. Bennette, who's looking for a job in Windsor, Ont., the city with Canada's highest unemployment rate, at 9 per cent. The picture is bleak there, and not just in manufacturing where many jobs have evaporated.

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Ms. Bennette has been a personal-support worker for about two decades, helping to care for patients with Alzheimer's and those with disabilities. It's physical work, though, and an injury means she can no longer be on her feet for more than a few hours at a stretch.

So she's looking for an office job. There are few to be had, and what jobs are on offer are mostly in stores, warehouses or restaurants, at minimum wage, which would mean a pay cut of 50 per cent.

She's brushing up on her computer skills, but "it's very limited out there," said Ms. Bennette, 60.

Factor in gas, mileage and car insurance to commute to work, and minimum wage means "by the time I drive somewhere, I'm working for free."

The composition of the labour market has tilted since the last federal election in May, 2011. Over all, employment has grown by 4.6 per cent since voters last went to the polls, slightly below population growth of 5.2 per cent, Statistics Canada numbers show. The employment rate sits at 61.3 per cent, near a post-recessionary low.

A growing share of people are working in health care and education, and a dwindling portion in manufacturing and agriculture. For all the talk of natural resources as a key driver of the economy, more than three-quarters of Canadians are now employed in the services sector, in areas such as retail, professional services, transportation and food services. Among age groups, employment gains have been strongest among the plus-55 as the population ages, while young people, especially women ages 15 to 24, have seen little improvement. Youth are also increasingly likely to be working in temp jobs.

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Full-time job gains are outweighing part-time losses, though. Among provinces, British Columbia has had the fastest job growth in the past year. Its year-over-year percentage growth is tied with Alberta, though the oil-dependent province has seen no job gains this year and its unemployment rate has hit 6 per cent, the highest in nearly five years.

Jobs are at the core of election pledges.

Despite Conservative claims that Canada's economy tops G7 countries, International Monetary Fund projections for next year put it behind Britain and the United States in growth and its jobless rate as third-highest in the group. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair plans to create "good-paying jobs" such as auto-sector positions while Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau says he will invest in jobs and growth for the middle class. Mr. Harper has a low-tax plan for jobs and growth.

While politicians frequently claim credit for job creation, "at any one point in time, the price of oil and the state of the global economy matter more for job creation and hiring than what the federal government is doing," said Frances Woolley, professor of economics at Carleton University.

Still, "that's not to say that what the federal government does is irrelevant," she added, through decisions on fiscal policy, government transfers, spending and rules around trade agreements or employment insurance legislation.

Employment levels haven't improved among young people in the past year. In Canada's largest city, for example, about a dozen young job seekers gathered on a Wednesday afternoon to learn about résumé writing at Youth Employment Services. It's a tough market for them: Toronto's youth unemployment rate is 16.6 per cent, above the national rate of 13.1 per cent.

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"It's frustrating," said Ms. Switzer, 26, who would like to work with animals, but is seeing postings only for restaurant or retail jobs. "The running joke is that everyone wants you to have experience, but no one's willing to give you that experience."

It's a similar situation for Ms. Lee, who is trilingual and completing her PhD in sociology from the University of Hong Kong. She's Canadian but having lived overseas in recent years, she is worried about her lack of networks in the city. She's looking for work at a non-profit or a social enterprise, but has seen no response from employers so far.

"It's daunting" and stressful, she said of her job-search experience.

A soft economy explains why employers are cautious. They "want to make the most efficient hires they can make and hiring a person with three to five years of experience" is seen as most efficient, said Mr. O'Grady.

Pockets of strength remain, he added; demand is robust for people in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math.

Manufacturing, still pinched by tight margins and global competition, is not on a hiring spree, but one area is in high demand: production engineers and maintenance supervisors, who can help factories trim costs and boost productivity, he said. "Virtually all of the jobs being created in manufacturing revolve around improved efficiencies and a reduction of costs."

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