Niagara just cannot seem to shake the economic blues.
While the unemployment rate in Canada fell to 5.7 per cent last month — the lowest rate since 1976 — Niagara’s jobless rate continued to hover around the seven per cent mark.
According to Statistics Canada’s seasonally adjusted labour force data, the unemployment rate for St. Catharines-Niagara fell to 6.8 per cent from 7.1 per cent from November to December — but remained higher than the national and provincial numbers.
Statistics Canada says Ontario’s unemployment rate was 5.5 per cent in December.
However, the CAO of Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce says the numbers are both not as bad and yet potentially more worrying than they seem at first blush.
“We should be cautious about looking at unemployment figures on a month-by-month, basis,” says Mishka Balsom, noting that the data can shift wildly over 30 days, but that shift does not reflect longer-term trends.
She noted that to look at Niagara’s unemployment rate on a year-over-year basis, the situation is somewhat rosier than the November to December data suggests.
“So if you look at the end of 2016, Niagara’s unemployment rate was 7.1 per cent, and by the end of 2017 it fell to 6.5 per cent,” she said.
“So there has been some progress. Niagara has not seen the kind of gains that have been seen elsewhere in Canada, but there has been some progress.”
She said the seasonal nature of many jobs in Niagara combined with the region’s older than average population likely contribute to keeping the region’s unemployment rate higher.
What is concerning, she said, is the rise in Niagara’s youth unemployment — ages15 to 24 — which rose to 9.5 per cent in 2017 from 8.5 per cent in 2016.
From her point of view, the unemployment data is less troubling than the drop in the participation rate in the local job market.
The number of people who have a job or are actively looking for one in Niagara rose slightly to 60.1 per cent in December from 59.7 per cent in November.
Balsom says the real story is in the year-over-year data. The participation rate fell to 60.7 per cent in 2017 from 63.3 per cent in 2016.
“This could indicate there are a number of people who have simply checked out of the job market,” Balsam said.
Although she said Niagara’s older population might play a role in the declining participation rate, she said Niagara needs to take a close look at why people are reaching a point where they are no longer looking for work.