Yukonomist: Hey, where can I meet Whitey Gee?

The hiring spree is good news for people looking for work.

You may have noticed that talking-point wizards at the Yukon government have started inserting the fact that the Yukon’s population has crossed the 40,000 mark into speeches.

Never mind that it’s actually “recrossed,” since the population of Dawson City itself was probably over 40,000 in 1898. Or that Statistics Canada estimated our population at just 38,459 as of last July.

But as far as arbitrary milestones go, 40,000 is a good one. The Yukon Statistics Bureau uses a different methodology to estimate population, and their estimate of 40,483 as of June 30, 2018 is as valid as Statistics Canada’s number.

More people in the Yukon is good in my view, as long as it’s slow and steady and their impact on our infrastructure and environment is carefully managed. More people means more Yukoners keeping our communities lively, and sharing the cost of fixed assets such as our highways and electricity system.

Other than our predictable and painful housing crisis, the growth has been well handled. Our population has indeed been growing at a steady pace from a recent low point of around 30,000 people in 2004.

What’s more interesting is what these new Yukoners are doing. I looked at the Yukon Statistics Bureau figures for how our workforce had evolved over the last two years from January 2017 to the same month this year.

There were 11,700 private sector workers in January 2019, down from 12,100 two years previous. The number of self-employed was the same, but employees were down 400.

Meanwhile, the number of government employees was up 1,000, from 8,100 in January 2017 to 9,100 in January 2019. This includes public servants across all four levels of government, but my guess is the bulk of the growth is from the territorial side given they have been boosting their spending and running substantial cash deficits for the last few years.

Going five years further back to January 2012, the number of government workers has grown by 1,400 from 2012 to 2019 while the total of private-sector workers has grown 200.

Of the 1400 government workers added over that seven-year period, 1,000 were hired in the last two years. This represents a significant acceleration of hiring.

Hiring 1,000 workers over two years is a big deal given the Yukon’s size. Only around 450 babies are born here each year, so hiring 1,000 people is on the same scale as drafting two full high-school graduating classes into the public service.

And this doesn’t yet count jobs formerly classified as private, like the Salvation Army going onto the territorial payroll as the government takes over the Centre of Hope. Ditto for Many Rivers, if the endgame for that organization is also territorialization.

This is a tricky political issue for the territorial government. On the one hand, voters love more public services and never object when there’s a new nurse or snowplow operator on duty. However, the apparently inexorable growth in government here gives people across the political spectrum second thoughts.

The free-marketeers object on principle. Small business owners and managers of non-profits say it makes it hard to find staff for their businesses. Civil society advocates wonder about the political consequences of living in a place where everyone, their spouse or kids are dependent on funding and decisions from one giant organization.

The way out of this is a strategy used for decades by Yukon governments of all political stripes: talk a lot about supporting the private sector in public, and quietly keep the hiring machine going in the background.

How quiet are they? Well, to give you an idea, try going to Yukon.ca or the last budget and finding the answer to this seemingly simple question: how many employees does the Yukon government have?

Expect to hear the term “forced growth” a lot more in the future. It’s already floating around town. It is meant to suggest the government reluctantly hired more people; for example, since our growing population meant that more teachers, nurses and policy analysts were required. It is to fend off accusations that the government is growing government for ideological purposes or, perhaps even worse, that spending and hiring is out of control.

The hiring spree is good news for people looking for work. So good, in fact that it brings back memories of past hiring booms.

Friends recently recalled an old story from the 1970s that suddenly seems apt again.

A guy from Alberta moves to Whitehorse looking for work, and is amazed at all the people spending big bucks in the taverns along on Main Street. Everyone tells him to go see YTG for a job.

He finds a phone book, checks the job boards but just can’t find the phone number.

Finally, dejectedly, he sits down at the bar in the old Taku. The bartender slides him a beer and asks what’s troubling him.

He sighs, and says, “I need a job, but I just can’t find this Whitey Gee guy.”

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.