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Statcan job numbers come amid added scrutiny on Ottawa's labour data

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OTTAWA - Statistics Canada's latest monthly employment numbers, released Friday, come at a time of unprecedented scrutiny for the way the federal government gathers its market-moving labour data.

The Labour Force Survey comes just days after the auditor general's spring report found Statcan's job-vacancy survey too vague, concluding the figures provided little value to governments and other users.

And it comes with the Conservative government under sustained fire over alleged abuses of its temporary foreign workers program, which was created to fill labour shortages in certain sectors.

Statcan's survey presents the number of jobs created or lost for the given month, as well as the unemployment rate. On Friday, the latest numbers showed that Canada lost 28,900 net jobs in April.

The concerns with the Labour Force Survey lie in the limitations of the figures available, said Don Drummond, an economist who wrote a report for the government five years ago on how to improve the country's labour-market data.

The measurements don't even address the most interesting information, because they zero in on the net numbers of the labour force, rather than the "real action" of the gross data, Drummond said.

For example, the announcement might say that 20,000 jobs were created for a given month, "but that's actually dead wrong," said Drummond, who believes a more detailed picture would give Canadians a better grasp of the situation.

"All it says is that employment went up by 20,000. But that 20,000 number might reflect the creation of 300,000 jobs and a loss of 280,000 jobs."

The second potential pitfall is hidden beneath the sampling variability of the data, which could mean the figure provided is way off the mark.

The two- or three-month trends give a much more reliable account of the situation, Drummond said. And the regional and occupational statistics use sample sizes that are too small, resulting in data that he warned could be "extraordinarily misleading."

Increasing those sample sizes would help, although that would also hike costs, Drummond said.

"Or we could have a more realistic perspective of diminishing the importance and reliability we tend to attach to any given month's result. To a large degree, it's just kind of white noise."

Rather than focusing on unemployment, Drummond said the priority should be building a better job-vacancy survey. He recommended basing it on larger samples and providing information such as the job skills needed for the positions.

"Certainly, if I was unemployed, I would rather know where there's a job vacancy than how many other people are unemployed along with me," he said.

On Tuesday, the auditor general said the government's survey of employment, payrolls and hours doesn't provide specifics on the precise location of job vacancies within a province.

Other surveys used by Ottawa to take the pulse of employment trends have also been criticized as inaccurate or incomplete. Statcan, meanwhile, has been hit with a $29.3-million funding cut over the last two years.

Canadians have frequently heard Finance Minister Joe Oliver — and his predecessor Jim Flaherty — boast about Canada's economic and job creation performance since the recession, claiming it has outperformed large industrialized nations.

Looking to the next federal election, political parties are set to duel over which one has the best employment-creation plan.

Angella MacEwen, a senior economist with the Canadian Labour Congress, said more funding is needed for Statistics Canada, so that it can provide a clearer picture for voters.

"I think it's very important for the public to have the right information and to see who's telling them the truth," MacEwen said.

She said the Canadian Labour Congress has also been calling on the government to take its Labour Force Survey even further. The group says the survey should include stats on Canadians who are no longer looking for work as well as those who are underemployed — people who are seeking more work.

By adding those categories, she said the Canadian unemployment figure would more than double, rising to 2.7 million from 1.3 million.

MacEwan said the organization has also been urging Ottawa to give StatsCan enough resources to complete its workplace survey, a program that would show how many people have been fired and hired. The program, she said, ran out of money before the analysis could be complete.

She also agrees that more funding is needed for the job-vacancy survey, which would help businesses plan for the future. Without it, she added, employers could struggle as the workforce continues to age.

"I think it does make it more difficult for potential employers who are trying to plan ahead and figure out, 'OK, what are the skills shortages going to be?' "

Follow @AndyBlatchford on Twitter

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