Shortcomings, limitations' to StatsCan job numbers: Audit

Report highlights need for better data around job vacancies
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/30/2014

With all the talk about labour shortages and misuse of temporary foreign workers, you would hope Statistics Canada has the numbers to provide an accurate picture — but maybe not.

The Office of the Auditor General of Canada has released a report suggesting there are gaps and limitations when it comes to key statistical data released by the agency, such as the Labour Force Survey, the Survey of Employment, Payrolls and Hours, the National Household Survey and the Consumer Price Index.

In particular, Statistics Canada is not meeting the need for data from small geographic areas and subpopulations in specific locations, said the audit. For example, results for the payroll survey are only released at the national, provincial and territorial levels — not the municipal level — so the data on job vacancies has limitations.

“For vacancies reported at the national, provincial and territorial level, it is not possible to determine where in a province or territory these job vacancies are located. For example, reported job vacancies in Alberta could be in Fort McMurray, Grande Prairie, Medicine Hat or any other community in the province,” said auditor general Michael Ferguson in his report.

In addition, the survey questionnaire allows for limited classification of types of workplace, but not types of occupations within those workplaces. For example, job vacancies counted under the “Professional, Scientific and Technical Services” industry classification could include jobs in advertising, legal services, architecture and biotechnology research.

“Users informed us that, as a result of these shortcomings, available information on job vacancies is of limited value,” said the audit.

In response, the agency said it has initiated a more extensive dialogue with regional and local governments and agencies, the private sector and non-governmental organizations on how their needs can be met — within the constraints of available resources.

“Due to the high cost of producing small area and small population data from surveys, most surveys are necessarily designed to produce data at the national, provincial and territorial levels. Statistics Canada continues to explore and use alternative sources to provide small area information, in particular, through an increased use of administrative data.”

The agency is also exploring “innovative methods” to produce small area estimates, it said, using surveys or combining them with other sources of information to enrich the information provided through ongoing programs.

It’s really important to have the information broken down further, said Angella MacEwen, senior economist at the Canadian Labour Congress in Ottawa.

“The sample size isn’t big enough, let alone at the city level, so we have no information at the municipal level of what job vacancies are.”

It would also be good to know hard-to-fill vacancies, she said.

“If those job vacancies are hard to fill, they’re taking a long time to fill... we want to know why and what we can do address that. That’s a problem and we want to know about problems,” said MacEwen. “Employers know that they’re having a problem but they don’t know why and the only thing they can see to address that problem is the Temporary Foreign Worker Program — they don’t have in place any other solutions for that because we don’t have the data to do analysis of the problem.”

With an aging workforce, there will be a demographic crunch so people want to prepare for that and have a better idea of what’s going on in terms of trends and dynamics, she said.

“Statistics Canada is doing the best job they can with the resources they have, but the cuts have been pretty devastating and we’re starting to notice the impact.”

The agency is well-respected in other countries, according to Pedro Antunes, deputy chief economist at the Conference Board of Canada in Ottawa.

“They do things very carefully, they’re very meticulous and, within certain budgets, I think they’re doing what they can, and often they won’t present data because they don’t feel that it stands up to statistical scrutiny.”

But with the labour market tightening, it would be nice to have better surveys and better data, he said. “Of course, all of those come with costs.”

And we’ve been a bit slow in rallying the case for it, said Antunes.

“We’re seeing labour force growth that is shrinking. Essentially, that’s due to the baby boomer cohort exiting the market, and that’s set up and left us in a difficult situation than we had in the ’80s or ’90s or early 2000s, so this is why we haven’t really planned for this problem very well on the statistics side,” he said.

“If there’s a problem, it’s that we didn’t really plan for the issue of tightening labour markets or the challenges of very divergent growth across regions and across industry sectors, and certainly we’ve seen that in the last decade. So there are spots where labour markets are fairly loose still and there are spots where labour markets are very, very tight and employers are desperate for workers.”

These kinds of statistics could help HR know if their recruitment problems relate more to their firm’s unique experience or to the economy or industry-wide factors, according to Helen Lam, a professor of human resource management at Athabasca University.

“Unemployment and job vacancy information can be helpful for HR professionals to justify to the organization the challenges in hiring the right talents in tight labour markets and the need to review the appropriate compensation package.”

In looking at the research front, unemployment or wage rates are often used by researchers as variables in quantitative HR studies to determine their relationships with other variables of interest, said Lam. For example, the unemployment rate may be a variable to consider in determining the reasonable notice period for terminations, wage level and turnover.

“As the surveys offer only very broad numbers, such as across an industry or a region, organizations should not overly rely on such information alone for significant HR decisions. Local and firm-specific factors must be taken into account as well.”

For meaningful decision-making, we really need more detail, said Shelagh Campbell, assistant professor in the Faculty of Business Administration at the University of Regina.

“If an organization, for example, is putting together a human resource plan around a potential expansion and they are looking at the availability of skilled workers and different levels of quality, they’re going to look at those preliminary figures — things like the employment rate, general education and so on and so forth. Much of the data coming out is very general,” she said.

“Most of the time, employers need to supplement with a little bit more on-the-ground research, contacting employment specialists in the region where they want to expand or talking to their network, their colleagues, their competitors, so forth.”

From a university perspective, information about job vacancies and the labour market is valuable for student services and support when it comes to job searches, co-op placements or workshops on career planning, said Campbell. The university will also look at these issues when it comes to providing programs that drive the economy, and the data will be used for discussion in the classrooms, to spur debate and analysis, she said.

“It’s incredibly valuable to have this kind of a resource, recognizing that we’re getting very high-level data.”

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