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Lies, Damned Lies, and (Job) Statistics! Mark Swartz, M.B.A. M.Ed.

About the Author

Mark Swartz, MBA, M.Ed., is Canada's Career Activist. His insights reach millions yearly as the Workopolis.com Career Advisor, as author of the best seller "Get Wired, You're Hired," also as a professional speaker and coach on career/work issues. A former Toronto Star careers columnist, Mark's advice is forthright and practical. For Canada's biggest directory of free career articles, and for personalized coaching, please visit www.CareerActivist.com.

Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth. -Marcus Aurelius

Help me out here, would you? I've been trying to figure out where the job market's headed. And I've got to tell you, I'm confused as all get out.

The problem, as you likely know, is that one day you see a headline such as ''Strong Growth Predicted in 2004.'' Then, in the same paper, on the very same day, there may well be an article on ''The Coming Slowdown In Hiring.''

So basically, my question is this: Do we dance in the streets, like it's dot-com job boom frenzy time? Or sell our belongings and flee to an ashram, while the getting's good.

The answer, dear friends, lies in perspective. A look at 2003's employment stats says it all.

Let's start with what the pundits predicted. ''This job market is like the Energizer bunny: It just keeps going and going and going,'' Marc Lévesque, senior economist with Toronto Dominion Bank, has said. (By the way - I communicated with Marc after the fact and apoligized for quoting him from another source without speaking to him personally.)

He was referring to the fact that there were 271,000 ''new'' jobs last year (the net number of jobs created after all the hiring and firing in 2003). Importantly, most of these new jobs were recorded as full-time, the hardest ones to come by.

Lévesque was bowled over. He even claimed our central bank might have to stop chopping interest rates, lest the gainfully employed make inflation reappear.

''Certainly, the odds of a rate cut ... have diminished dramatically as a result of this (year-end jobs) report,'' said Lévesque recently.

Fast forward to Jan. 20, when the Bank of Canada cut its rate by a further quarter percentage point. So much for certainty, eh?

Well then, what do the good folks at Statistics Canada have to say?

''We don't make predictions, but we do keep track of the numbers,'' explained Vincent Ferrao, senior analyst with StatsCan.

He directed me to the agency's January press release, which highlights the trends from 2003. Some of the choicer morsels?
  • On the whole, employment growth slowed to 1.7 per cent in 2003, from 2002's growth rate of 3.7 per cent (when a respectable 560,000 jobs were added).
  • About 219,000 of those incremental jobs came in the final four months of the year.

The release concludes that this trend ''suggests a strong start for 2004 and implies an underlying strength in what has been a lacklustre Canadian economy.'' Sounds a bit like a prediction to me--but then who am I to quibble over such nuances?

Beyond the semantics, these are encouraging words for those who are pounding the pavement. At least I thought so, until Ferrao kindly, and patiently, walked me through the detailed tables. It turns out that things aren't quite as rosy as they seem. For instance, those 271,000 additional jobs? Almost 40 per cent are in the public sector, which means they're positions created by our tax dollars, mainly in health care and education.

For the all-important private sector, things are mighty curious indeed. Nearly 165,000 new jobs were created last year. But nearly 60,000 of these aren't ''jobs'' at all, since they're classified under ''self-employment.'' This wouldn't be so bad, except you can qualify as self-employed even if you aren't earning a cent.

O.K., so where does that leave us now? With 105,000 private sector jobs added for all of last year, in a country in which close to 16 million of us are employed and nearly 1.2 million are searching for work.

If that sounds a bit bleak, please blame the numbers, not the messenger. I haven't even mentioned that, on top of the unemployed left over from 2003, another 400,000 young people will be vying for their first real jobs this year. So will 100,000 or so of the quarter million new immigrants coming to Canada in 2004. (Did I tell you yet that, with all this increased competition, only 175,000 folks are likely to retire?)

Whew! I hope you're hanging in, for it grows more curious. Going back to those 105,000 private-sector jobs added last year, it turns out more than a third are part-time. Which means, in all of 2003, when our economy was supposedly tickety-boo, we saw a net increase of just 68,000 full-time jobs that weren't publicly funded.A figure like that takes my breath away.

But my last few gasps are for the strangest facts of all. Of that paltry 68,000, almost 50 per cent went to people over age 55. I mean, hello! Do you know what it's like finding work if you're over 50 these days? You'd have better luck selling candy to a dentist. Where on earth are these workers getting hired? And where does that leave the rest of us? I can tell you one thing, our fairer sex is doing better than the men. Of all private-sector jobs created last year (excluding self-employment), fully 60 per cent went to women.

Which means ... well, your guess is as good as mine, given this data. About all I can say is that the figures paint a startling picture of the job market. There were fewer than half the additional positions in 2003 as there were the year before, most of these supposedly going to older workers, though anecdotally they're having the toughest time of all finding work.

I think I'd better leave the rest to our statisticians and economists. Meanwhile, you heard it here first: Unless George W. Bush opens the taps to create new jobs in this election year, and some of that prosperity spills over to our side of the border, 2004 is shaping up to be a tough year for employment. In other words, you may want to start networking diligently and put the bottle of bubbly on ice until you have a firm offer.

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