The January labour force report from Statistics Canada contained a nasty jolt. Amidst a generally positive report for the country as a whole there was a great big outlier for Nova Scotia. In December there were 13,300 fewer full-time jobs in this province than there were in December 2015. Surprisingly, the biggest drop – 9,600 – was recorded in Halifax. Even more shocking, elsewhere in Canada there was an increase of 81,000 full-time jobs in December.

The jobs meltdown is only news to a degree. As recorded often on this site, something is clearly rotten in the economic state of Nova Scotia. But while reporting on this, I have pointed out that employment stats from a single month should be approached with caution. It will take a few more monthly reports before we can decide whether our provincial economy is in the toilet or all the way down the drain.

The bad results for December confirmed the first part. Until those numbers came in it looked as if the province was on the way to at least holding the line on jobs in general and full-time jobs in particular. But, with the December loss the downward trend that started in 2013 continues. Average monthly employment for 2016 – both full-time and part-time – was 446,100, down 11,200 from 2012. With the December figures drastically pulling down the annual monthly average, full-time jobs in 2016 were 3,700 below 2012.

Feds, private sector cut jobs 

There’s no mystery as to the source of the four-year employment slump. Between 2011 and 2015 federal government employment in Nova Scotia dropped by nearly 12%. The private sector, unleashed by the McNeil Liberals to take us to the economic promised land, shed 6,400 jobs over the same period. The only thing preventing worse job numbers has been provincial public sector employment – mainly health and education – which has increased nearly 6%.

The latest economic update from Nova Scotia Finance suggests that the labour market will continue to circle the drain in 2017, with overall employment numbers projected to be only marginally better than in 2016. However, if the loss in full-time jobs recorded in December proves to be a trend rather than a blip, the sewer pipe beckons.

One might think that the loss of all those jobs would get media attention. Granted, the December plunge may be a statistical aberration, but that hasn’t stopped the media in the past from going big on a monthly jobs report. At the very least there may have been a question to Premier McNeil or his economic development minister about whether their “leave it to the private sector” strategy is working.

Or what about a check-in with federal power broker Scott Brison to see if the feds have anything in the works to put back some of the federal government jobs that have been lost the last four years. Or even, when can we expect to see all that federal spending on infrastructure pay off in jobs?

And perhaps the Greater Halifax Partnership could have been asked to explain what the heck’s going on with jobs in Halifax, supposedly Nova Scotia’s economic engine?

Media criticize NDP instead

But no, it’s as if job loss is the new normal in Nova Scotia. Instead of exploring that, media attention turned to protecting the reputation of one of our (to steal from Joel Plaskett) Captains of Industry – also known in some circles as “job creators.” The inciting event was a press release from the provincial NDP in advance of a legislative committee meeting on special needs funding by the Department of Community Services.

To illustrate the point that many people are suffering from the department’s parsimony while others have more money than they can spend in several lifetimes, the NDP went to the Canadian Business magazine list of the 100 richest Canadians and focused on – presumably for its near-perfect symmetry – the fact that the net worth of Halifax’s Ken Rowe, proprietor of many enterprises, increased by $270 million in 2016. This increase in wealth in a single year was more – by $25 million – than the province paid out in income assistance last year. Wow.

For its trouble, the NDP was criticized for “singling out” Ken Rowe. Why Rowe would be offended by someone pointing out that he’d just had a very good year in 2016 is not altogether clear. But newspapers here and elsewhere (Charlottetown and Winnipeg for example) seemed to agree with the Liberal backbencher who said politicians should “celebrate the success of its entrepreneurs” rather than reference one of them to make a point about inequality.

But then, maybe the critics are right about “singling out” Ken Rowe. Despite his good year, he’s still only number 71 on the top 100 hit parade, his net worth of $1.43 billion a pittance compared with the chart topper, the Thomson Family – erstwhile purveyors of lousy newspapers – with $39.13 billion in net worth. As for his contribution to Nova Scotia’s poor economic and job growth, Rowe’s IMP Aerospace did lay off some 44 workers in Halifax early last year.

But unlike number 86 on the list – John Bragg – there are no reports of Rowe shutting down any operations. Bragg, the Nova Scotia blueberry baron and advocate of job cuts in the public sector, has seen his net worth increase by $250 million since 2014. That improvement in fortune didn’t stop him from closing a carrot processing plant in the Annapolis Valley while scoring a provincial subsidy for another operation in Cumberland County.

And the Valley took another hit from an even bigger player, Weston Foods, which closed its Sarsfield pie-making plant in Kentville, costing 90 jobs. Galen Weston, proprietor of Weston Foods, is number two on the Canadian Business list and has seen his net worth rise from $8.2 billion in 2012 to $13.2 billion in 2016. And that job creator’s non-performance pales in comparison to the destruction wrought by number three on the hit parade – the Saputo family. The Saputos and their Montreal-based cheese colossus saw net worth jump from $6.43 billion to $10.61 billion in 2016. In June, Saputo shut down a plant in Sydney with loss of about 100 jobs. And just last week, Saputo announced layoff of another 187 full and part-time workers across the region.

Disparities in wealth and income would be less egregious if the Captains of Industry were actually creating jobs instead of the opposite. Maybe we would be more inclined to celebrate their success as entrepreneurs with some evidence of that success being shared with the community as a whole.


Post Script: An earlier post (Sept. 16, 2016) reported on the employment debacle in Cape Breton. Over the first eight months of 2016 average monthly employment was down 4,000 from the previous January-August time period. But some better news – the numbers improved over the last four months of the year, coming in slightly above the September-December period in 2015. As a result, average monthly employment for 2016 ended 2,500 below 2015, a drop of “only” five per cent. Average monthly full-time employment in Cape Breton in 2016 was down 1,800, or 4.4%. Still no official acknowledgement of a problem, so maybe there isn’t one?

There was no last quarter improvement in another set of jobs numbers we’ve been keeping an eye on after the 2016 provincial budget singled out the stat – full-time employment among young people 15-24 – as evidence of how well the Liberals’ economic plan is working. The numbers have been in decline since that April budget mention and hit 29,100 in December – the lowest monthly total in at least a dozen years. The December total was down 1,400 from the month before and 4,700 from December 2015. On the year, average monthly employment among 15-24 year-olds was down 2,000, or 5.9%. Hear no problem, see no problem, speak no problem.