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File photo of a job seeker in London, Ont.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Canada's labour market may have grown in quantity in January, but it's deeply lacking in quality. It feels like we may have a lot of new "consultants" out there.

Statistics Canada's latest Labour Force Survey showed job growth of 35,400 in January – a number that stretches the bounds of credulity, considering all the negative oil-shock-related news we've been hearing since the year began. Remember that this is, in fact, a survey; its statistical "standard error" is plus-or-minus 28,800, meaning that there's a two-thirds chance that the actual employment gains for the month was somewhere between 6,600 and 64,200. It's entirely possible that this particular survey is an overestimation; and given the surrounding anecdotal evidence, it has that feel.

But even if we take it at face value, this is a strikingly unhealthy 35,400. All the January gains were in part-time jobs, which rose 47,000; full-time employment fell 12,000. Self-employment surged by 41,100; jobs on payrolls fell 5,700. Workers aged 25 to 54 – the heart of the country's workforce – gained just 1,300 jobs in January, and they lost nearly 22,000 full-time jobs. Men in this prime age group lost nearly 40,000 full-time jobs.

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Surprisingly, Alberta, the province at the epicentre of the oil shock, has one of the country's biggest job gains, up 13,700 for the month. But again, the details don't quite live up to the headline. More than half the gains (7,500) were in self-employment. Nearly half the gains (6,700) were in the category of "other services" – which includes repair and maintenance jobs, as well as a variety of personal services. Put it together, and I can't help but wonder how many of these are laid-off energy-sector workers who have hung out their own shingle in the past month.

Numbers elsewhere in the country are equally curious. Quebec led the country with 16,000 net new jobs in January, yet all the growth was part-time (up 20,400). Ontario lost 23,000 full-time jobs (although it posted a small job gain overall), and its manufacturing sector shed 4,000 jobs, despite indications of strengthening demand for manufacturing exports.

Nationwide, the biggest employment gains came in the category of "professional, scientific and technical services," where 22,400 jobs were added in January. Couple that with the sharp rises in self-employed and part-time workers, and it looks an awful lot like a lot of out-of-work professionals may have become stay-at-home "consultants" last month.

Now, to be fair, it's only one month of figures – and, as already noted, this survey has a lot of statistical wiggle room in it. The part-time and self-employed numbers could well be overstated, for instance. Nevertheless, the details indicate that this is not a strong 35,400 jobs that Canada apparently created in January. The sheer number of weak points in the data is cause for caution, if not concern.

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