Diverging lines: How N.L. has a very different employment picture than the rest of the country

While Canada now has the lowest unemployment rate since the advent of Three's Company, N.L. is alone with a jobs problem that's getting worse.
The fishery and other sectors of Newfoundland and Labrador's economy have been struggling in recent years. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

You know that sensation when you see a birthday party taking place at another table in a restaurant, and feel a little bit put out that you won't be getting cake?

That's kind of how I felt a week ago when the latest monthly jobs report came out from the feds.

Usually, I feel nothing much at all with government announcements, but this one brought out a little pang, because two diverging storylines were presented.

A woman walks past a 'help wanted' sign in Ottawa, one of the Canadian cities where employers have been trying to recruit new workers. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

The first had to with the national jobs picture, which was good. The second had to with things here at home, which are … well, not.

Statistics Canada reported that the Canadian economy added 78,600 jobs last December, blowing away expectations that just a few thousand new jobs would have been added.

Those new positions brought the national unemployment rate down to a compact 5.7 per cent, which is the lowest the rate has been since 1976.

To put that date in perspective, 1976 is when Laverne & Shirley, Three's Company and Charlie's Angels all debuted on TV. So, yes, it's been a minute, as the kids say.

They're down, we're up … and not in a good way

While the unemployment rate nationally has been consistently going down, ours has been going in the other direction. Last month, we hit 14.7 per cent.

Simply put, we're out of step with the national economy, not to mention the other provinces. And that's troubling in a province where the provincial debt is already mountainous, store closures are becoming depressingly common, and there doesn't appear to be much relief on the horizon

This chart tells the story. Newfoundland and Labrador has always had an unemployment rate higher than the national score, but we've had our moments where things seemed to be on a roll.

In September 2013, the provincial rate dipped to a recent low of 8.7 per cent — just over a point more than the national rate had been the month before.

But while the Canadian job market picked up steam, things here have been getting worse.

We've been expecting it, of course. Wabush Mines closed, construction came to an end on the giant gravity-based structure for the Hebron offshore oilfield, and work at Vale's nickel-processing facility transitioned from construction to production.

In 2015, the Newfoundland and Labrador government's own Labour Market Outlook warned that the workforce, which had been about 292,000 in the previous year, would drop to just under 268,000 in 2018.

Bang on schedule

Well, 2018 is here. StatsCan reported that the labour force last month was already down to 263,600, so I guess we're bang on schedule.

To be precise, the labour force in the province actually increased by a couple thousand positions in December, probably reflecting the extra hiring for Christmas sales.

Hebron's gravity-based platform was towed out to the Atlantic Ocean last year, after construction clewed up at Bull Arm. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

But things are still not that rosy in the immediate term.

I don't think it's a coincidence that the government sold its new contract offer to NAPE (four years of wage freezes, and massive concessions on severance) with a promise of no layoffs. Putting aside that little issue of attrition, it's clear Premier Dwight Ball wants to avoid the optics of pink slips.  

The St. John's Board of Trade, which presents a rolling update to the provincial government's net debt on the landing page of its website, says the no-layoff clause will be a costly one — but one that is being pushed to future taxpayers to pay.

By the way, we're not just out of step with the country; the same goes for Atlantic Canada, too.

In Prince Edward Island, for instance, the annual unemployment rate in 2017 was the lowest it has been in four decades.

Indeed, the unemployment rate in the other three provinces now rests between 7.8 and 9.8 per cent.

We are the only province now with an unemployment rate in the double digits.

This kind of company is select, but it's like being alone at a table in an otherwise busy restaurant. Let's hope we don't gorge in self-pity on cake we can't afford. 

About the Author

John Gushue

CBC News

John Gushue is the digital senior producer with CBC News in St. John's.,,,,,,,,,,