It is the Labour Day weekend, that bittersweet end to summer. But as much as Labour Day signals that it is time to think about back-to-school and the new projects at work, it is also a good time to take stock of how we all are doing in terms of what we actually get paid for our work.
There are lots of ways to count earnings, but one of my favourite measures is employment by occupation. If you are a chef, your own industry benchmark is other chefs; comparing your earnings in the hospitality sector to the earnings of those in health care. for example, is not necessarily a fair comparison.
To see how everyone stacks up, I've downloaded data from Statistics Canada's Labour Force Survey, and measured how pretax hourly earnings have changed over the past year (July, 2012, to July, 2013), five years and 10 years. (Though some of the surveyed employees are paid by the week, not the hour, Statistics Canada converts everyone to hourly wages.) The original data are not adjusted for inflation, so I've done that, using Statistics Canada's consumer price index. Self-employed workers are not included in the data.
On an hourly basis, Canadians aged over 15 were making 0.5-per-cent more than they were a year ago in inflation-adjusted terms. Over the past five years, real wages were up by 6.4 per cent, or 1.3 per cent annually. For the past 10 years, the gains were 11.5 per cent (1.2 per cent annually).
Unionized workers (up 1.7 per cent) did a lot better than non-unionized ones (up 0.1 per cent) over the past year, although the trend is different over the past decade (10.5 per cent vs. 12.5 per cent).
So who were the big winners and losers by occupation? The top of the pile has got to be professionals in the health care field – doctors, nurses and the like. This group is up by 36.1 per cent over the past 10 years and by 4.9 per cent over the past year alone. Teachers and professors are doing okay as well: Up 35.7 per cent over the past decade, and 4.1 per cent over the past year.
If you look at just the past year alone, senior managers have had a nice run, up 4.6 per cent. That is a recent phenomenon. Over the past 10 years, their hourly earnings are only up by 7 per cent (less than 1 per cent a year), and over the past five years their earnings are down by 1.7 per cent. You can see the same thing if you look at professional occupations in the finance industry. They are up 2.4 per cent over the past year, but a more modest 11.7 per cent (about 1.2 per cent a year) over the past decade.
The unambiguous losers – in wage terms – are those employed as labourers in manufacturing and utilities. Their wages are down 1.6 per cent in the past year, and fell 5.3 per cent over the past five years. Over the 10-year span, they are essentially flat, at 0.3 per cent.
Chefs – mentioned above – have lost 0.3 per cent over the past year, although they are up by 10.5 per cent over the decade.
One thing that surprised me, given the robustness of the sector, is the earnings of construction tradespeople. They are only up by 9.1 per cent in real terms over the past decade, and 6.8 per cent over the past five years. Over the past year, these wages have dropped 2.1 per cent. It could be that the real wage gains are in overtime, or perhaps are hidden in the black-market economy; either would tend to understate the official numbers. In contrast, "labourers" and helpers in construction continue to see big gains. Their hourly earnings were up by 5.5 per cent over the past year, and by 33.6 per cent over the past decade.
What comes out over all is that the biggest gains these days are to employees with some kind of public-sector or para-public-sector connection. You could debate whether that is appropriate at a time when private-sector workers are not doing nearly as well. There also seems to be more payback to those workers who tend to have the highest level of education. There's nothing new there; survey after survey says the same thing.
The biggest picture, to me, is that Canadians do continue to earn more, year after year, even after inflation. Some years are better than others, and some decades are, too. In an ideal world, we would be seeing bigger gains for non-unionized workers, and across a wide swath of occupations. That might happen, but it is going to take a bunch of other stuff to happen first – things like a global economic boom. A boost to Canadian productivity would be nice as well.
Happy Labour Day.
Linda Nazareth is the principal of Relentless Economics Inc. and a senior fellow at the Macdonald Laurier Institute.