StatsCan labour shortage report released May 24 compares the number of unemployed to vacant positions

Roslyn KuninThere are lies, damn lies and statistics. No one knows to whom this often-repeated expression should be attributed, but most realize that statistics, even accurate ones, taken at face value and without careful analysis, can lead to misguided conclusions.

People with a particular position to present may indulge in the tactics offered in a well-read book aptly named How to Lie With Statistics. And with so much current media content being labelled fake news by one group or another, it is hard to know what to believe.

In some countries, statisticians know they can only produce numbers that conform to the current government’s party line. Occasionally, they are even told what numbers to produce. Canada is blessed to have Statistics Canada as our statistical agency: it is recognized around the world as being honest, accurate and reliable. We can trust and believe in the numbers that StatsCan releases.

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Nevertheless, even the most trustworthy and accurate data can be misinterpreted or presented in such a way as to lead to erroneous conclusions. This is what has happened to a StatsCan report released last May 24.

The report deals with the very topical issue of labour shortages. It compares the number of unemployed people to the number of vacant jobs from 2016 to last year. Jobs are sorted by the educational level required. The unemployed are also categorized by their level of education and also by whether they are immigrants or Canadian born.

When we look at jobs that require no education past high school, it is undeniably clear that there are far more openings than there are people to fill them. Ask anyone who is trying to run a restaurant or any similar business. In the past, such jobs were often filled by people too young to have acquired further education, but low birth rates for two or three generations mean that we no longer have a large enough stream of youngsters going into and out of high schools.

The picture is different when we look at vacant jobs that demand a university degree. Here the number of unemployed degree holders exceeds the number of vacancies. These numbers could lead one to believe that we have too many university-trained people and that there are no labour shortages once we move beyond entry-level jobs. Both these conclusions are false.

All workers, including the well-educated, are in short supply. Contact almost any employer or industry association just about anywhere in Canada and they will tell you that not only can they not fill the positions they have, but they are having trouble keeping their existing staff as scarce workers are being lured away.

One reason that we have unemployed graduates alongside historically high job vacancies is that university degrees are not interchangeable. Graduates with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degrees have their choice of well-paid jobs. So do those in the health professions and other applied fields. Graduates in less specialized or practical fields face dimmer prospects.

One should be wary of the headlines describing this report that imply that a university degree or other advanced training is not worth it. However, before investing the time, effort and expense of acquiring a degree, prospective students should do some homework on which fields offer the best employment prospects for graduates. Canada’s employers still need highly trained workers, but only if they are in the right fields.

Another reason for the mismatch between grads and jobs is experience or the lack of it. It is up to employers to take on new workers and to provide the experience they need if they are to get around the workers’ bind that they cannot get a job without experience and they cannot get experience without a job. Training-related programs like work terms, summer positions and co-ops are all effective ways to deal with the lack of experience.

As StatsCan’s numbers show, immigrants are overrepresented among those not finding work. Any arriving immigrant, by definition, does not have Canadian experience. In the past, many professional bodies, employers and others used this lack of Canadian experience to screen out immigrant workers. Many valuable new arrivals were thus unable to contribute the training, skills and expertise they brought to Canada. Fortunately, current labour shortages are such that associations and others no longer use lack of experience in Canada as a discriminating tactic.

A final reason for unfilled jobs and idle workers in Canada is location. We are a big country. Not every employer has the option to operate where most potential workers are, and many Canadians are reluctant to move where the jobs are. The growth of remote work should provide at least a partial solution to this problem.

Dr. Roslyn Kunin is a public speaker, consulting economist and senior fellow of the Canada West Foundation.

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