When it comes to January’s jobs, it’s quantity over quality

Feb. 7: In the Weekend Playbook, we look at the details behind last month’s jobs report: part-timers, self-employment, and work after 55


An unexpectedly large job growth jump, and a cut to the unemployment rate.

Last month’s job numbers look surprisingly good – given reports of cuts and lay-offs have been coming hard and fast lately – with a 35,4000 boost for January, and a cut back down to a 6.6 per cent unemployment rate.

But here, as ever, the devil is in the details.

That consensus seems to be widespread among journalists and banks, after the month’s high growth presented an appetizing surprise. Elation over the report may be something of a question of quantity over quality: most of the gains were made due to part-time jobs, and self-employment.

Last month saw more than 47,000 new part-time jobs, while self-employment was up by 41,000.

Meanwhile, full-time jobs actually fell by almost 12,000, and payroll jobs by 5,700.

As David Parkinson at the Globe points out, jobs for people between 25 and 54 – the prime working years – actually lost almost 22,000 full time jobs, and men in this group lost 40,000. Some of the largest industry losses were in natural resources, which lost 8,800 jobs.

Who got jobs, then? Not youth – while there was a gain in part-time jobs, the youth unemployment rate actually fell because young people left the labour market, although that can simply show the call of school or travelling.

Instead, more than any other group, it was women over 55 who were working, with 19,000 heading to new jobs.

A part-time job can be ideal for your circumstances, and being self-employed can mean reaching a professional goal where you control your own work.

But collectively, it can also mean there’s a lot less salaried work (with benefits) to go around, and more women who are getting to or at retirement age getting back in the workforce – likely for economic reasons, not boredom.

The labour participation rate, which measures how many people are employed from the overall population, also remains at 65.7 per cent – an almost 15 year low.

As David Parkinson says, “I can’t help but wonder how many of these are laid-off energy-sector workers who have hung out their own shingle in the past month”, calling the number “strikingly unhealthy.”

Still, there’s some optimism to be had. In a BMO note, Douglas Porter said the report was “good news, warts and all”, – a decent increase in jobs – if not full-time – is still an increase.

Caution is also a well-used word when it comes to this report, with RBC noting that it’s risky to draw hard conclusions from the month, after recent revisions.

That revision, of 2014’s employment picture, also showed how quickly the picture can change – in that case, downward – and sometimes, there are pieces of the picture we simply don’t see, because they’re not being recorded at all.

Last month, Joe Friesen reported in the Globe that Statistics Canada isn’t collecting jobs data from reserves, which would exclude half the country’s First Nations people from statistics, citing logistical hurdles to collecting the data.

But if the jobs picture isn’t leaving a jump in your step, look to the south, instead.

On Friday, the U.S. got news on Friday that jobs growth is picking up to a rapid late-1990s pace, with more than 250,000 new jobs last month, and a revision to show last year was even better than expected for the U.S.