One thing we often overlook when talking about Canada's monthly employment report is that it's very much a snapshot in time. A series of these snapshots strung together can show a trend, just as many snapshots strung together can make a film. But an individual snapshot is susceptible to blurring of the details.
Case in point: last week's Labour Force Survey for February, courtesy of Statistics Canada.
The overall result – a net loss of a thin 1,000 jobs in the month – was, under the circumstances, fairly encouraging. Taken as a whole, you get a picture of the oil shock delivering its predictable damage to resource jobs, but the non-energy economy gaining traction amid rising U.S. demand and a falling Canadian dollar. Which is pretty much according to the script drawn up by most economists, including those employed by the Bank of Canada.
But one big piece to this puzzle didn't fit. Manufacturing jobs slumped by almost 20,000, nearly half of that in Ontario – at a time when rising U.S. demand for goods from Canada's manufacturing heartland were expected to be fuelling hiring. The seeming inconsistency may boil down to a matter of timing – of the Labour Force Survey itself.
The survey doesn't cover the entire month, but rather a single week around the middle of each month – in this case, Feb. 15-21. Statistics Canada contacts respondents the following week and asks them whether they worked during this "reference week." In theory, they could have worked every other week of the month, but if they sat on the sidelines from Feb. 15 to 21 (for reasons other than illness or other personal absences), they would be counted as not employed in the February survey.
In this case, the timing of the reference week coincided with the start of a layoff at the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles plant in Windsor, Ont., which shut down effective Feb. 14 for a 14-week retooling. The layoff involves 3,000-3,500 workers at the assembly plant, and related major parts-supplying feeder plants account for more than 1,000 idled workers – not to mention other suppliers dependent on the Windsor plant that would also have been affected.
Up until a few days before the survey reference month, those workers were employed, and they will be back on the job before the end of May. But as of the February jobs report, they are a big chunk of new unemployed – in a move that doesn't in any way reflect weakness in the auto manufacturing sector.
On the other hand, the February survey dodged some of the worst news on Canada's labour front: Target Corp.'s cross-country department store shutdown, which will wipe out more than 17,000 retail jobs, hadn't yet hit the fan in the Feb. 15-21 week. The retailer had announced plans to close down its Canadian operations, but its workers were still very busy in mid-February, with liquidation sales in full swing. The first round of closings began in the middle of this week, but even those might not show up in the March jobs data, because this week will be the reference week for this month's Labour Force Survey – so anyone still working at those stores before they turn the lights out will be counted as still having a job in the March survey.
That means that the job losses from Target's Canadian departure will likely hit the employment data like a ton of bricks in the April and May surveys (and possibly, depending on the timing of the survey and closings, lingering into the June numbers). Even as the economy is starting to get over the worst of the oil shock and power ahead again, the Target-induced rut in the job numbers will obscure any improvement in terms of net job creation.
There are other possible timing-related issues in the February data. The reference week was the coldest of the winter throughout much of central Canada and the northeastern United States, which may have been a significant drag on labour demand. And the survey showed a 15,500 jump in construction jobs, a number that's hard to reconcile with Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.'s report of a dramatic drop in housing starts in the month.
Job changes can be lumpy at the best of times. In the current fast-evolving labour market that is under multiple conflicting pressures, the monthly snapshot may be prone to being especially blurred.
It's a case for putting more focus on the multimonth trend. Over the past four months, which encompass the bulk of oil's plunge, that adds up to essentially a sideways drift in the labour market. From that perspective, maybe February's near-flat overall result, for all its internal quirks, captured the essence of the trend after all.