Skip to main content

The good news is that Canadian employment is growing again. But the details continue to show that this is not a particularly healthy labour market.

Statistics Canada's monthly Labour Force Survey, released Friday morning, showed that the Canadian economy added 25,800 jobs in May, essentially reversing April's disappointing 29,000-job decline. But the quality of the May gains was, frankly, discouraging. Full-time employment actually fell by 29,000; full-time jobs have now shrunk by 60,000 over the past two months. All of May's job growth was in part-time positions, which rose by 55,000. Two-thirds of the jobs created in May were in accommodation and food services – the lowest-paying segment of the labour market. Employment in the meat of the labour market – Canadians aged 25 to 54 – was down 54,000 in May, and 88,000 in the past two months.

The drift toward part-time jobs is particularly disconcerting, and it is far from a short-term aberration. Over the past year, if it hadn't been for part-time work, Canada wouldn't have any employment growth at all. The country has aAdded 112,200 part-time jobs in the past 12 months, but it has lost 26,700 full-time jobs. Part-time jobs now make up 19.3 per cent of all employment in this country – the highest proportion in nearly three years.

As the Canadian job market stumbles, we're becoming a nation of part-timers – and, increasingly, not by choice. The survey indicates that there are now more than one million Canadians who are "involuntary" part-timers – they want full-time jobs, but are stuck in part-time. Those numbers have swelled by 54,000 workers, or more than 5 per cent, in the past year.

It all points to a deteriorating quality in Canada's labour market. And it helps explain the country's lack of economic traction, despite its solid overall post-recession job growth.

Canada is now looking at the same kinds of job-quality questions that have been high on U.S. policy makers' minds over the past year, as that country's unemployment rate has declined markedly yet worries have persisted about pervasive "underemployment" among those who have found jobs. Yet we are now seeing improving employment quality signals out of the United States, which reported a 217,000-job increase in May – edging total employment above its pre-recession peak for the first time.

The number of U.S. involuntary part-timers has been declining, even as overall employment has been rising. The number of marginally attached and discouraged workers has also declined. Long-term unemployment has receded by nearly one million in the past 12 months. And the labour force participation rate, while still weak by historical standards, has stabilized over the past six months.

It's worth noting that the U.S. labour market is only just now climbing out of a recessionary hole that Canada emerged from long ago; Canada has been above its pre-recession employment peaks for more than three years. Nevertheless, the quality details in the U.S. labour statistics are increasingly signalling economic momentum; Canada's are signalling little other than questions and doubts.