Tony Clement fires back at PBO study: Skills shortage seen in regional conditions (Financial Post)

March 27, 2014

OTTAWA — The federal government’s No. 1 number cruncher says there is no question that employment data support Ottawa’s argument that Canada is suffering from a shortage of skilled workers.

Treasury Board president Tony Clement, responding to a study by the Parliamentary Budget Office, said Wednesday the public-spending watchdog viewed the labour market mainly from a national “aggregate” perspective that does not reflect regional employment conditions on the ground.

The PBO study, released Tuesday, did look at regional conditions but still concluded there is “little evidence” of a so-called skills mismatch that the Conservative government has used as a major plank to support in its job creation programs.

But Mr. Clement shot back, saying “when you look from a regional or local point of view, there are certainly cases in our country where we have skills shortages.”

“There are specific examples of skills shortages in northern Ontario, where I live, or in northern Alberta, or in Saskatchewan,” he told reporters in Ottawa.

“That is buttressed in my own mind by my own round tables that I’ve have done across the country — and many other ministers and MPs have done the same thing.”

The debate over whether we do or don’t have a skills mismatch has been clouded by other data that shows job vacancies either up or down, depending on the source of those numbers.

The Finance Department, in a special report issued at the same time as the Feb. 11 federal budget, pointed to a job vacancy rate of 4%, up from 3.1% at the end of the recession — indicating more employers are finding it difficult to get the right people into the right positions.

But Statistics Canada, in a March 18 report, showed there were 200,000 job vacancies in December, down 21,000 from a year earlier. That translates into a job vacancy rate of 1.3%, compared to 1.5% over the same 12-month period.

Further muddying the issue is the source of some of that job vacancy data. There are concerns that some of the numbers generated by online sources, and used by Finance, were too volatile and could affect the accuracy of such readings.

The Conference Board of Canada, which uses data provided by Wanted Analytics for its regular Help Wanted Index, recently noticed that volatility and it was determined it originated from job postings on Kijiji, the classified advertisement site.

“We spoke to the supplier, Wanted, and a decision was made to remove that one job port,” said a Conference Board spokesman. The board will issue its latest Help Wanted Index next week, and that will include revisions to its data to reflect the change in Wanted Analytics’ sourcing.

But regardless of the process, Mostafa Askari, assistant Parliamentary Budget Officer, said “we don’t really see any conclusive evidence that would point you to a major labour shortage or a major skills mismatch.”

Even so, he added: “There are always mismatches in the labour market. It’s a typical characteristic of dynamic labour markets. New people come in. New industries come in.”