It seems to have passed unnoticed by the news media and the government spinners but the monthly labour force survey released last Friday revealed Nova Scotia hitting a milestone – the unemployment rate in April was 6.7 per cent. That’s the lowest it has been since Statistics Canada began reporting comparable data in 1976.

Considering that double-digit unemployment was the norm in Nova Scotia for most of the 42 years covered by the data set, the low rate – part of a downward trend that started last fall – may once have been considered a big deal. The fact that it has so far gone unremarked indicates that the issue has changed – from concern about the number in the labour force without work to a focus on the size of the labour force itself. On that score, the 6.7 per cent rate reflects a mixed blessing.

On the positive side, Stats Canada reported employment at 457,500 in April, 7,500 more than the same month last year. That total may look impressive, but it is only 1,200 above April 2012. That year was the high water mark for employment in Nova Scotia and the numbers have been lower every year since.

If the current pace continues, 2018 may turn out to be the year the province breaks the annual average employment record set in 2012. But that could prove difficult, considering that the other determinant in calculating the unemployment rate – the labour force – shows no sign of growing. As the table shows, the labour force has fallen by more than 10,000 since 2012 – hence the significantly lower unemployment rate despite the insignificant increase in jobs over the last six years. There are fewer people seeking available jobs.


Table 1: Calculation of unemployment rate

April 2012 April 2018
A. Labour force 501,600 490,500
B. Employment 456,300 457,500
C. Unemployment 45,300    32,800
Unemployment rate C/B


   9.0 %      6.7%

CANSIM 282-0087


Still shrinking and aging

Not only is the labour force getting smaller it is also – as long forecast – getting older. Over-55s accounted for 23.0 per cent of the labour force in April 2018, up from 20.1 per cent in April 2012, while the 15-24 age group dropped from 15.3 to 14.2 per cent of the work force over the same period.

As for the latter group, despite all of the attention the McNeil government is giving to youth employment programs, the jobless rate for workers 15-24 was 16.4 per cent last month, up two percentage points from April 2017. Full time jobs for that age cohort totalled just 31,200, down by 1,200 from last April and a startling 5,000 – that’s 13.8 per cent – from two years ago. Clearly, announcements aren’t the answer for youth unemployment, at least not yet.

The distribution of the recent employment growth is also problematic, with most of rural Nova Scotia still in the doldrums. The overall provincial increase from April 2017 to April 2018 is because employment in Halifax is finally catching up to the prevailing boosterism of the place (discussed here). The year-over-year jobs increase in Halifax is 11,100, bringing employment in HRM to 231,000 which, subject to revision, would be an all-time high.

Unfortunately, other than a small increase in the Annapolis Valley, the other three regions (Cape Breton, north shore, southern Nova Scotia) showed job losses, furthering the imbalance between HRM and the rest. Since we are using 2012 as a baseline, it is useful to compare employment between HRM and the rest for those years. In April 2012, 49.1 per cent of jobs were in HRM; six years later the percentage of jobs in HRM has increased to 52.0. As Table 2 shows, Cape Breton has been the main victim over the last six years, losing almost 9,000 jobs, and seeing its share of provincial employment drop from 12 per cent to ten.

Table 2: Change in employment and share by region 2012 and 2018

Region Jobs April 2012 share 2012 Jobs April 2018 % share 2018
Nova Scotia 444,900 100.0 % 444,100 100.0 %
Cape Breton 53,400 12.0 %    44,500 10.0 %
North Shore 71,000 16.0 %    65,100 14.7 %
Southern NS 49,500 11.1 %    47,600 10.7 %
Annapolis Valley 52,500 11.8 %    55,800 12.6 %
Total Rural NS 226,400 50.9 % 213,000 48.0 %
Halifax 218,500 49.1 % 231,100 52.0 %

CANSIM 282-0122

The decline in employment beyond HRM and the Valley has been accompanied by an even greater drop in the labour force. So despite the job losses, the north shore and southern Nova Scotia unemployment rate in April was lower than in April 2012. The exception was in Cape Breton where the April rate was 15.6 per cent, up from 13.7 per cent in 2012. (The employment numbers in Table 2 differ from those in Table 1 because the former are based on a three-month average).

Regional improvement

It would be remiss when discussing the latest employment data not to update an item from January discussing the disquieting 2017 annual employment estimates from Statistics Canada. That report showed job growth in Canada of 336,500 in 2017, compared with minus 2,100 in the Atlantic Region – a total made up of 8,500 fewer jobs in Newfoundland and Labrador and small employment gains in the three Maritime Provinces. So far in 2018 things are looking a bit better. Canada’s job growth has slowed, with an increase of only 46,600 to the end of April, but in this neck of the woods things are looking up.

Newfoundland is still dropping, but New Brunswick and PEI are, like Nova Scotia, seeing increases. As a result, so far this year employment in the region is up 6,300. That’s a big improvement from last year, when there was a drop of 2,000 jobs in the Atlantic region over the first four months even as the country as a whole added 57,000. If the trend continues heading toward a federal election next year, Liberal MPs may be better able to convince voters that the Trudeau government’s Atlantic Growth Strategy is more than just an empty slogan.