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Key survey on job vacancies is vague, not terribly useful: auditor general

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OTTAWA - The country's top survey on job vacancies is too vague and doesn't provide much value to governments and other users, the auditor general said Tuesday.

Michael Ferguson's latest report comes as the Conservative government faces scrutiny on alleged abuses of the temporary foreign workers program, which is meant to address labour shortages in certain sectors.

Other surveys used by Ottawa to take stock of employment trends have also been criticized as inaccurate or incomplete.

Ferguson said Statistics Canada's survey of employment, payrolls and hours doesn't provide specifics on the precise location of job vacancies within a province.

"For example, reported job vacancies in Alberta could be in Fort McMurray, Grande Prairie, Medicine Hat, or any other community in the province," says the report.

Industry classifications in the survey are broad, noted Ferguson, and don't provide much indication of the particular jobs that need to be filled.

"We have identified that users have been asking for more information about employment data at more local levels," Ferguson told a news conference.

"Really what we have said is Statistics Canada needs to do a better job of understanding those types of needs and figuring out whether there are ways that it can address those needs, because it's certainly the thing that its users are demanding."

Federal and provincial ministers agreed on the need for more data on job vacancies in 2009 and the statistics agency added questions to the survey to address that in 2011.

Other tools in the government's statistics toolkit have fallen short.

An employment insurance, monitoring and assessment report, conducted by Employment and Social Development Canada, has been ridiculed for including data from online classified service Kijiji to establish labour needs. That practice has since been stopped.

Another StatsCan survey commissioned by the department, which included input from 25,000 employers on their workplace demographics and skills requirements, never got past the data-collection phase because funding ran out.

Ferguson's report recommends Statistics Canada determine whether it should keep certain surveys alive even after a department or organization stops providing funding. Meanwhile, the statistical agency is grappling with a $29.3-million funding cut over the last two years.

Employment Minister Jason Kenney's office said in an email he is looking forward to meeting with his provincial and territorial counterparts this summer and discussing better labour market data.

Liberal finance critic Scott Brison said the auditor general's findings are part of a Conservative attitude toward data and scientific evidence.

"The Conservatives have used bad data to defend expanding the temporary foreign workers program at the cost of Canadians' jobs," said Brison.

"There's a real economic cost to a government guided by ideology and not evidence."

Later Tuesday, Brison asked Finance Minister Joe Oliver at the Commons finance committee whether the government would provide StatsCan with the resources to calculate reliable job-vacancy rates at the community level.

"It is clear that these broad statistics don't paint the entire picture for job occupancy in the entire country," Oliver said.

"We are looking at how this information can be better provided. ... We know, as a matter of fact, that there are sectoral and regional differences."

The auditor general's report also reviewed the National Household Survey, the voluntary questionnaire that the Conservative government used to replace the mandatory long-form census in 2011.

Ferguson found that small towns and communities are missing out on key statistical data as a result of the change.

Statistics Canada withheld information on a quarter of Canadian communities, or three per cent of the population, because of the low quality of the data in the smaller areas. The biggest area had almost 10,000 residents, the region around Lake Simcoe in Ontario.

The report said Statistics Canada needs to consider how it can better serve the needs of those who use information on smaller municipalities, including the towns themselves, non-governmental organizations and private companies.

Statistics Canada responded by saying it is seeing how it could use alternative sources to beef up its information on those communities, including use of administrative data. The agency wasn't specific, but that could refer to other information kept on the population by government bodies, such as tax returns and driver's licence registrations.

The agency recently announced it would be sticking with the National Household Survey for the 2016 census. The Conservatives eliminated the long-form despite widespread criticism, saying the government did not agree with threatening Canadians with fines and jail time for not divulging their personal information.

Follow @jenditchburn on Twitter

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