Alberta posts worst unemployment rate in decade

OTTAWA -- The bite of the oil-price shock sunk its teeth deeper into the job markets of Canada's oil-producing provinces last month, with Alberta posting its worst unemployment rate in a decade.

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Significant January job losses in Alberta, as well as the fellow oil-rich province of Newfoundland and Labrador, offset Ontario's solid net gain in employment, Statistics Canada said Friday in its latest labour force survey.

On balance, job growth sputtered in neutral across Canada, with 5,700 fewer jobs recorded. That number, however, was within the survey's margin of error and not statistically significant.

The national unemployment rate moved to 7.2 per cent -- up from 7.1 per cent in December -- as more people entered the job market, the agency said.

But a starker month-to-month picture emerged when looking at last month's Alberta jobs data.

The jobless rate in Alberta hit 7.4 per cent in January, up from seven per cent in December. That pushed it higher than the national unemployment rate for the first time since December 1988, the report said.

Robert Kavcic, senior economist with BMO Capital Markets, said the StatCan survey shows the weakness in Alberta is now spreading to other sectors of its economy as the oil-price slump filters through.

Alberta, the agency said, suffered a net decline of 21,900 full-time positions in January, with the bulk of the decrease concentrated in agriculture and manufacturing, particularly those tied to the struggling energy sector. The drop was offset in part by an increase of 11,900 part-time jobs.

The report's numbers also pointed to declines in other oil-exporting provinces, such as Newfoundland and Saskatchewan.

Newfoundland showed a net month-to-month decrease in January of 2,400 jobs -- knocking employment down 3.1 per cent compared to the year before.

In Saskatchewan, the unemployment rate moved up to 5.6 per cent from 5.5 per cent, as the economy shed 6,000 full-time jobs.

"In a nutshell, obviously, pretty dramatic weakness in oil-producing provinces," Kavcic said.

Manitoba also suffered considerable job losses last month by dropping 5,300 net positions -- an 0.8 per cent month-to-month drop compared to December. Most of the decline came in the services sector.

On the positive side, the agency said Ontario was the only province to show significant growth last month as it added 19,800 net positions, including 16,300 full-time jobs. Compared with a year earlier, Ontario showed a net gain of 100,200 jobs, an increase of 1.5 per cent.

Meanwhile, British Columbia's employment was up 2.1 per cent in January compared with 12 months earlier.

Kavcic said Ontario and British Columbia have been driving job creation in Canada amid a "pretty dramatic shakeup" in the regional breakdown of the country's labour market.

"When you smooth out the last six months, Canada has still created roughly 9,000 or 10,000 jobs per month over that period," Kavcic said.

"So, that's a little bit slow historically, but still, I mean, it's not terrible given the oil-price shock that we've been dealing with."

The report found a nationwide net increase of 19,700 jobs in the services industry only partially made up for the 25,300 net drop in employment in the goods-producing sector.

The decline included big losses of 13,700 positions in agriculture and 11,000 jobs in manufacturing, largely linked to the declines in those sectors in Alberta.

CIBC chief economist Avery Shenfeld said the overall StatCan survey results amounted to a "weak report."

"Canada's job prospects are only just catching up to the malaise in the rest of the economy," Shenfeld wrote in a note to clients. "Not surprisingly, it's oil-centred Alberta where the bad news is hitting hardest."

The jobs data also showed that self-employed positions fell by 20,200 last month, while the net number of employee jobs increased by 14,500.

Statistics Canada also released the latest figures Friday on international merchandise trade.

It showed that Canada's trade balance for December was negative $585 million, as total exports rose 3.9 per cent compared with November and imports climbed 1.6 per cent.

Kavcic called the trade number "solid" and he said it showed a pretty good increase in export volumes across a number of the non-energy sectors.

"We continue to see the story where net exports are adding, at least modestly, to growth in Canada," he said.


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