Yukonomist: Fun facts for your next violent barbecue debate about government jobs

Have you ever been at a barbecue where someone starts talking loudly about how many government workers there are in the Yukon, apparently unaware that everyone else there works for the government?

Hopefully you can get out of ketchup-bottle range before that someone starts talking about government pensions, too.

It raises the question: do we have a lot of government jobs in the Yukon? Or is that a myth that somehow got started out on the creeks?

If you want to continue to have fact-free debates about the role of the state at barbecues, stop reading now. Economists at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) club of advanced nations have some handy statistics comparing Canada to other members.

The average OECD country employed 18.1 per cent of its workforce in all levels of government, as of 2015. Canada was slightly above average, at 18.2 per cent.

The United States was lower than average, at 15.2 per cent. This is partly explained by how the American private sector is more heavily involved in areas like healthcare and education.

The French government, a bête noire of free-market enthusiasts, employed more than average: 21.4 per cent of the workforce.

The Nordic countries were the highest, ranging from Finland at 24.9 per cent to oil-and-gas rich Norway at 30 per cent. These countries are famous for their extensive social-safety nets and government programs.

So, what’s the figure for the Yukon? The Yukon Bureau of Statistics tells us that for 2018 the Yukon had 9,300 government jobs out of total employment of 21,300.

That’s 43.7 per cent. French socialists will be horrified to learn that the Yukon makes them look positively Thatcherite. They could hire twice as many government employees and we’d still have them beat.

We’re also well more than double the Canadian average.

Our government employment has also been growing fast. In 2014, the figure for the Yukon was 39.4 per cent. That means we’ve increased our figure by 4.3 percentage points in just four years.

If that continues, the last private-sector job here would be phased out in 2071.

We don’t have the same time comparison for the other countries, but the OECD does put out data from 2009 to 2015. During this six-year period, no country in the OECD grew its workforce as much as the Yukon did in the four years leading up to 2018.

Only three countries grew by more than one percentage point, compared to the Yukon’s 4.3. These were led by the Czech Republic, with 2.7 percentage points.

Of the 29 countries in the dataset, nine increased government employment over the period. Meanwhile, 20 cut government jobs, often as a result of aftershocks from the global financial crisis.

Canada, which escaped the worst effects of the crisis, was one of the countries that downsized government overall. This was the net effect of increased hiring at the provincial level, Prime Minister Harper’s cost controls in Ottawa, and a growing number of private sector workers as the economy grew. The net impact over the six-year period was -0.5 percentage points, which is roughly in the middle of the OECD pack.

If your barbecue debate gets particularly energetic, someone will start comparing the Yukon to Communist China.

This is a good chance to make some money if you can convince your friends to start betting.

Unwary bettors will assume that a Communist powerhouse like China will, of course, have more of its workers toiling for the benefit of the state.

However, according to data from China’s Ministry of Labour and its statistical yearbook, analyzed by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, only 10.2 per cent of the Chinese workforce was employed by the government or state-owned companies in 2009.

Even though China had around 80 million government workers, double the entire population of Canada, they were diluted by hundreds of millions of peasants and factory workers.

So the Yukon has four times more government workers as a percentage of its workforce than the People’s Republic of China.

I suggest collecting your money on that bet right away, before your victims start to argue about the reliability of Chinese government statistics or whether the Peterson Institutes definitions are consistent with OECD methodologies.

So what is the use of this information, other than winning bets at barbecues?

Government jobs, like private sector jobs, aren’t good or bad by definition. Any modern society will have a mix of both.

What I take away from the statistics is that the Yukon pendulum has swung very far towards government employment. It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to let it swing back a bit the other way, with government agencies trying a bit harder to find more creative ways to deliver programs than just hiring more staff.

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 is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.

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