Latest jobs report contradicts rural reality

Senior economist says: 'Be careful with the data'

By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    
December 16 2020

ST. MARY’S – The Nova Scotia government’s latest job numbers paint a rosy portrait of the province’s economic buoyancy since the beginning of the global pandemic in March, but one senior analyst warns there’s more to the picture than meets the eye, especially in rural regions.

“Statistics are always tricky,” says David Campbell, a former chief economist of New Brunswick and a Moncton-based consultant to industry and governments, “but comparing November 2020 employment to November 2010 data – over the decade – Halifax is up 30,200 jobs and everyone else is down nearly 20,000 jobs.”

Earlier this month, Nova Scotia’s Treasury Board reported employment in the province was up 10,000 to 468,500 in November with surprising strength in the North Shore (Colchester, Cumberland, Pictou, Guysborough and Antigonish counties), where the unemployment rate was 5.9 per cent, compared with 6.4 per cent in Halifax.

Across the province, “this gain was concentrated in full-time employment, which has risen to 383,200, the highest level of full-time employment on record,” it said in a news release. “Nova Scotia has the lowest unemployment rate in Canada [6.4 per cent versus 8.5 percent] for the first time in the 44 years of the Statistics Canada monthly Labour Force Survey.”

But Campbell says the numbers can leave the wrong impression.

“Be careful with any of this data as there are still thousands and thousands of jobs being propped up by the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS),” he cautions. “As of September, there were still 32,500 supported by CEWS. It is likely most of those would be unemployed without the CEWS program and other supports.”

Moreover, he adds, the actual number of those employed in the province’s rural areas continues to shrink, despite periodic declines in local unemployment rates.

“You have to be careful with the regional breakdowns within Nova Scotia, as they are based on a three-month moving average – not seasonally adjusted,” he says. “COVID seems to have hurt the other regions more than Halifax: Total employment is down 4.1 per cent in Cape Breton, down 4 per cent in the North Shore, and down 5.9 per cent in the Annapolis Valley.”

As for Guysborough County, Campbell says the real problem goes deeper.

“It is now one of the oldest jurisdictions among the 60 U.S. states and Canadian provinces with a median age of 57.5,” he notes. “There are now 311 people over the age of 65 for every 100 under the age of 15. The county needs a growth plan – more mining, more tourism, more agriculture, more entrepreneurs, more local services, more health care, more, more, more.  And it needs to bring people in by the boatload.”