Northeast B.C. unemployment rate too low to report

The unemployment rate in Northeast British Columbia is so low that it can’t be reported – for the fourth month in a row 

There were approximately 130 postings on the Fort St. John Employment Connections job board this week, down from over 200 a couple of months ago. Still, the unemployment rate is so low it can't actually be released by Statistics Canada | Photo: David Dyck

The unemployment rate in Northeast British Columbia is so low that it can’t be reported – for the fourth month in a row.

The latest available data, which measures the rate through January, shows that collapsing oil and LNG prices have yet to have a big impact on employment in the region. 

The unemployment rate for the Northeast has been listed as “not available” by BC Stats since October 2014, because Canada's national statistical agency won’t release the data due to a “confidentiality threshold” set at 1,500 unemployed people to prevent “direct or residual disclosure of identifiable data,” according to the agency’s website.

There are about 1,100 people without jobs in the region. Of the region’s 41,600-strong labour force, approximately 40,500 are employed, according to Labour Force Statistics (LFS) data.

The latest official rate BC Stats released for the region was in September 2014, when it was listed at 4 per cent.

The monthly LFS report by BC Stats uses data compiled by Statistics Canada.

The data shows what employers in the Peace Region have been saying for some time: There are more jobs than there are people willing to work.

That also means Northeast B.C. remains at full employment, which the Ottawa-based think tank Conference Board of Canada pegs below six per cent.

Full employment is reached when virtually everyone who is able and willing to work is employed.

“I think it’s fairly obvious looking at the numbers, that the [unemployment] estimate is falling below 1,500 at which point Statistics Canada [will] suppress the data,” BC Stats spokesperson Jackie Storen said.

The fear is that the data could be cross-referenced with other indicators and lead to the disclosure of certain employers or individuals.

The confidentiality threshold changes from province to province. It is set at 1,500 for Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and B.C. It’s 500 for Newfoundland and Labrador, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and 200 for Prince Edward Island.

Labour shortage in the Peace

Closing coal mines and tumbling oil and LNG prices haven’t been enough to reverse the region’s rising rate of employment.

In each of the four months that the unemployment data has been withheld, the number of employed persons in the region has increased. Roughly 38,600 people were employed in Northeastern B.C. in October 2014. That rose to 38,800 in November, 39,600 in December and 40,500 in January 2015.

Employment in the Peace tends to rise in winter drop off in the warner months.

Roughly three quarters of the working-age population in Northeast B.C. is employed, an impressive stat when compared provincially.

British Columbia has a 59 per cent employment rate, while the Northeast sits at 73 per cent, far ahead of any other region in the province.

The labour shortage has been a driving force behind a number of trends: Northeast B.C. grew the fastest in the province from 2013 to 2014, according to a report from BC Stats in January.

While workers from across the province are moving north for jobs in large numbers, some employers fill job vacancies with temporary foreign workers.

Blue Fuel Energy, for example, has said it might largely rely on workers from outside the region for the construction of a $2.5 billion natural-gas-to-gasoline refinery and methanol plant just outside of Chetwynd. There simply aren’t enough workers in the Peace Region, the company says.

That is also why the company sees the approval of major projects such as Site C as a “big negative,” Blue Fuel Energy CEO Jurgen Puetter told the Alaska Highway News in a January interview.

“It’s a large project near by that is going to take away a big workforce,” he said, as a result the large plant may require the use of temporary foreign workers, which Puetter indicated is “something we are working with our engineering firms on because we don’t know where we are going to get the people from.”

Alaska Highway News