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Yukon unemployment surges in latest statistics

Statistics Canada just released figures showing a surge in unemployment in the Yukon. The headline rate hit 8.3 per cent in June, seasonally adjusted.

Statistics Canada just released figures showing a surge in unemployment in the Yukon. The headline rate hit 8.3 per cent in June, seasonally adjusted. That is double what it was a year ago, and takes the Yukon above the national average.

The headline rate of unemployment is much loved by the media, since it allows the entire labour market to be boiled down to one ten-second blurb on TV: a graphic with an arrow pointing vaguely downward, a frowning newsreader, and some flashing red letters saying “Latest statistics - economy headed for toilet.”

But there’s a lot more to the labour market than the headline rate. So let’s dig a bit deeper to see what is really happening to Yukon employees and their employers.

News of higher unemployment here is unfortunately not really surprising. Several mines have closed recently in the Yukon, and sagging mineral prices are sapping investor enthusiasm in exploration. Oil prices have also fallen by around half in the last year, inducing a regional slowdown in Western Canada.

Potential alternative economic drivers have not come on stream as quickly as some hoped. Economic mayhem in Europe probably isn’t helping the eco-tourism market. Chinese overseas investment has been held back by the economic situation in China. Two years of wrangling in the legislature have put natural gas development into slow motion, with likelihood of a total ban on fracking if the NDP or Liberals win the next election.

Nor did the Yukon Party government push planning fast enough in the boom years so that economy-building things like the backup fibre-optic cable or new hydro capacity were ready to start construction in 2015.

As we look underneath the headline figure, your first question is probably “what kind of people are unemployed?” Are they newly laid-off Yukon miners? Refugees from Fort MacMurray returned home? Young people? Long-time Yukoners or people who moved here during the recent boom? Aboriginal, immigrants or others?

The answers to these questions are important in terms of deciding which public policy levers to pull. Unfortunately, the Yukon is a small place and we lack data on many of these key questions.

We do know that the seasonally-adjusted total Yukon labour force rose by roughly 300 people to May from a year earlier, and that the participation rate - or percentage of working-age people that are employed or looking for work - stayed about the same at 75 per cent. This is one of the highest rates in Canada. However, employment in the Yukon fell by 200 jobs in the same period, causing unemployment to surge to 1,400 people in May before going even higher in June.

Jobs at all levels of government went up 600 in May from a year before. Private employees went down 400 while the number of self-employed Yukoners fell a whopping 600. That means one-fifth of self-employed Yukoners laid themselves off in the last year. This is probably mostly in Whitehorse, if you remember that the City of Whitehorse’s last annual report showed a sharp fall in business licenses.

On the good news front, a higher percentage of Yukoners had full-time jobs than the national average. And average weekly earnings including overtime rose 2.9 per cent for the year up to March 2015 (latest month these statistics are available, excluding self-employed). However, this was not universal. Public administration employees saw their pay go up 5.5 percent, while “goods-producing” employees saw their pay packets go down 8 per cent.

We also know that the unemployment rate for women has been consistently lower than for men since 2013, except for early 2015 when female unemployment surged. It’s not clear why this pattern is changing so abruptly.

The unemployment rate for youth is also consistently higher than for older Yukoners. Women aged 15-25 faced a 15 per cent unemployment rate while 20 per cent of young men were unemployed.

One seldom-discussed factor is how employment insurance varies across the country. For readers who have lost their jobs thanks to the slowdown, it can make a big difference. The federal Conservative government has reduced benefits for unemployed people in Whitehorse. As reported in the Yukon News, they reduced the maximum number of weeks Whitehorse workers receive benefits from 45 to 36. They also increased the number of hours required to qualify for the program to 700 from 420.

They did this in 2014, just before the surge in unemployment here. Our MP, Ryan Leef, voted for the Conservative budget that covered these measures. Federal officials recalculate the rates regularly, but as of writing this column they remain worse for Whitehorse workers than before the Conservative changes. Expect this to come up in this October’s election.

So what does this mean? For Yukon workers, it increases the pressure. There are more competitors for jobs, and the regional escape hatch of Fort MacMurray is no longer such an attractive fall-back. Workers with the right skills, work experience and references will have an advantage. If you don’t have those things, the tough but honest message is that you should probably be figuring out how to change that.

For Yukon voters, with a spate of elections coming up over the next 18 months, it means getting ready for a barrage of improbable claims and counterclaims by our politicians. When they knock on the door and try to kiss your baby, ask them what they plan to do to improve the job situation.

If they make vague promises to diversify the economy, improve relations with First Nations, or build more government buildings, ask them to try a bit harder.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He won this year’s Ma Murray award for best columnist. You can follow him on Channel 9’s Yukonomist show or Twitter @hallidaykeith