It's bad enough that Canada's employment count moved backward in April. Beyond the headline number, this latest monthly misstep lays bare the crumbling quality of the labour market in so many other ways.
Naturally, what immediately catches the eye in Statistics Canada's Labour Force Survey is the 29,000-job decline in employment in April – a pretty big stumble in an economy that is allegedly gaining momentum. Yes, you could argue that this merely gives back some of the surprisingly big gains (43,000) in March. You could argue that, given the survey's sizable margin of error (in this case, the margin is 29,000, meaning that statistically, the actual number could be anywhere within a range of zero to down 58,000, and only two times out of three), the results of this particular survey could be flat-out wrong.
But the fact is that jobs have now declined in three of the past five months – during which time the Canadian labour market has actually lost nearly 8,000 jobs. If anything looks like a statistical outlier here, is was the big March gain, not the April fall.
Consider other disturbing details in the April report. All the job losses were concentrated in full-time positions (indeed, at 31,000, it was more than all of them, offset by a 2,000 job gain in part-time employment). The private sector shed 29,000 jobs while governments shed another 17,000; the only thing propping the job count from an even worse fate was a 17,000-job increase in self-employment, a dubious sign for job quality.
Well-paying job categories such as finance, insurance and real estate (down 19,000), professional, scientific and technical services (down 10,000), natural resources (down 7,000) and utilities (down 5,000) were among the month's big losers. The only decent gain was in business and building support services (up 26,000), one of the lowest-paying job classifications.
This underlines the point made recently by economist David Madani of Capital Economics (which I wrote about here) that the quality of Canada's labour market has been deteriorating even more rapidly than overall job creation itself. The upshot is that income growth is slowing markedly – a factor that could considerably limit any hopes for consumer spending's contribution to economic growth. Indeed, the Labour Force Survey shows wage growth has slowed to a trickle in the past three months (just 0.2 per cent), and is now running at a thin 1.8 per cent year over year.
At least there is one glaring weakness in the numbers that has a good explanation – a slump in hours worked (down 1.9 per cent from March, and down 1.1 per cent from a year earlier). Statscan noted that Easter (and its two stat holidays) landed in April this year, versus March last year. But when the closest thing we have to a ray of sunshine is a plausible excuse, it's a dark day on Canada's labour landscape.
What's going to turn this around and restart Canada's stalled labour market? We're back to the Bank of Canada's old saws: Export growth and business investment. Without a sustained pickup in both, it's hard to see where the next leg-up in employment is going to come from.