Job numbers hide anxiety

Within 75 minutes of the new jobs data coming out from Statistics Canada, federal Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos had tweeted out a polished message complete with a youth-friendly photo boasting about 24,000 more Canadians working full time in June.

In both official languages, natch.

He, or the person tweeting on his behalf, argued: #OurPlanIsWorking — only the latest example of the federal Liberals taking credit for the boom in Canada’s job market over the past year. That a strong job market favours incumbents is an age-old maxim that the Liberals want to be sure to exploit.

But here’s the catch: The job bonanza of the past few months seems to have tapered off, with the labour market shedding 2,200 positions in June. And regardless, there’s no guarantee that voters are actually feeling good times or are in the mood to be thanking the Liberals for them. The opposite may well be true, at least for some voters.

The fading of the jobs boom is the lesser of the challenges for the Liberals.

All those people who just landed new jobs mainly still have them, and the numbers are impressive. Statistics Canada figures 421,000 new positions were created over the past year, an increase of 2.3 per cent. We haven’t seen job creation like that since 2003.

Wages, too, have been rising. Last week’s data showed a big pop in average hourly wages, with a 3.8 per cent increase compared with a year earlier.

But voters are not feeling the love. And politicians of all stripes are quite desperate to figure out why, so that they can capitalize on that insecurity in the next campaign.

Federal ministers point to a widespread anxiety about the future and uncertainty about job prospects as the economy transforms to a more digital and service-based job market.

And, yes, in focus group testing done for the federal Privy Council Office in advance of last spring’s budget, pollsters found that some Canadians were somewhat incredulous about the strong job numbers and were nervous about what was in store for them and their families.

“The future of the job market in the next five or 10 years is questioned, and there was a sense that it will continue to be affected by increased automation, outsourcing, recessions, economic migration, cost of housing, and wages not keeping up with the cost of living,” a report on the testing states.

The affordability concerns ring true. Even though average wages may now be running above inflation, the cost of housing in big cities is formidable for many. Plus, when it comes to family finances, a few months of wage increases don’t make up for years of stagnation.

CIBC economist Benjamin Tal, who has spent years researching and tracking job quality across industries and regions in Canada, has some added insight into why Canadians may not be feeling so confident about their job prospects.

In a long-term report on job quality issued this week, he sees a deterioration in which wages have generally not kept up. That’s not because the new jobs are mainly part time. They’re not; they’re mainly full time.

Instead, he looks industry by industry, and finds that the deterioration is mostly due to the bulk of the new jobs being in low-wage industries such as food services, accommodation and administration.

More generally, Tal also finds a steady incline in the share of low-wage jobs in the Canadian labour market over the past 20 years. And he finds that when people in high-wage industries get wages, they get whopping big pay hikes — making the data look good for all of us, but hogging the increases for themselves.

Chances are, when Duclos tweeted that his party’s plan was working, that’s not what he meant.

Heather Scoffield is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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