Newfoundland and Labrador has the highest number of unemployed people for every open job vacancy of any province in Canada — and the figure is rising.
Statistics Canada released figures of provincial and national unemployment-to-job vacancies ratios this week, with Newfoundland and Labrador’s ratio calculated as 21.8 in March 2013. The ratio means that for every job vacancy, there are nearly 22 people in the province unemployed, a leap of more than a third over the province’s 16.6 figure a year earlier, is 73 per cent higher than the second-worst provincial figure (New Brunswick, at 12.6), and more than three times the national average of 6.4.
The report attributes the sharp increase to a declining number of job vacancies in the province, with less decline in the number of unemployed people. March’s number of unemployed people (a figure that is actually the average of the three months ending in March) was 35,000, down from 37,300 the year before, while the number of vacancies in March this year was 1,600, down from 2,200 the year before.
The figures fly in the face of both the province’s unemployment rate — 11.6 per cent as of May, making it the worst in the country — and the warnings of a labour shortage causing headaches for businesses in the province.
Lana Payne, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour, said the ratio is partially due to how the unemployed are counted.
“We have a lot of folks who show up as unemployed but really what they are is employed in seasonal employment. It’s more underemployment than unemployment in some cases. And it’s where those folks are living, compared to where the jobs are. The jobs might be in the city, but the larger numbers of unemployed may be in other parts of the province,” she said.
But employers still need to adjust to “the new normal,” said Payne.
“We’re still seeing employers saying it’s a labour shortage, but is it really a labour shortage, or is it a combination of wage shortage — in other words, wages not being sufficient enough to attract people from other areas and uproot their families — and a skills mismatch? What the labour market needs, what the job vacancies are requiring of people, we may not be seeing the folks who need the jobs having the skills for them. I think there’s a combination of factors here.”
Richard Alexander, director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Employers’ Council, said Newfoundland and Labrador has the highest unemployment rate in the country, but employers are still having a harder time filling vacancies than they did 10 years ago, a problem exacerbated by several factors, he said.
“One is that individuals that are unemployed don’t have the skill sets, the education, the background, to take vacancies that are available,” he said. “Two, there could be geographical barriers, so individuals don’t have a willingness or are unable to move to areas where the job vacancy exists, or people are just unwilling to take those types of jobs. So the combination of those three things are contributing to this stat.”
Alexander said government employment programs need to be better equipped to take advantage of the vacancies, whether that’s access to training programs or even just better awareness of what positions are available, and praised the federal government’s recent changes to employment insurance that change guidelines of what type of work an EI recipient should be prepared to take, for how much pay, and how far away the job might be.
“What’s disappointing is that there are groups out there that are fighting against the changes that have recently come to employment insurance,” Alexander said. “The group I work for, they’re reporting a very, very positive experience with changes to employment insurance. Anything that can provide incentives and awareness to people to move off EI and into full-time employment is good for our province.”
Employers need to be more innovative in how they attract people, said Payne.
“No longer do they have a stack of 500 résumés sitting on their desk,” she said, adding there’s a disconnect between claims of a labour shortage while unions at the bargaining table receiving concessionary-driven proposals. “On the one hand, you get employers saying, ‘We can’t attract skilled folks.’ But on the other hand we get these concessions at the table that are contradictory to (what) the labour market issues tend to raise.”
Alexander said he expects the ratio will come down. “As a province with a very small population, and a very small workforce in comparison to provinces like Ontario and Quebec and Alberta, because the data set is so small, it’s susceptible to fluctuations from year to year,” he said. “What’s important to us as a province is to pay attention to this number, but we want to look at the long-term trends.” If in a few years that ratio is still climbing, said Alexander, that would be something to be worried about.
RBC economist Laura Cooper also said the high ratio of seasonal and public-sector workers affects the number.
“Newfoundland has the highest share of its employed people in the public sector, at 30 per cent, which is above the national average,” she said. “So when you exclude that segment of the labour force, it doesn’t really give you an accurate gauge of what’s going on, necessarily, in terms of employment. If we look more along the lines of unemployment rates, we see that, year-to-date, the unemployment rate in Newfoundland is around 11.9 per cent. The same period last year, over the first five months, is 12.7, and that’s a better gauge, in our view, of looking at the employment situation in the province.”