Ottawa-Gatineau unemployment holds at 4.4% despite job losses

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Employers in Ottawa-Gatineau shed about 1,600 jobs from their collective payrolls in December, but a dip in the size of the labour force helped the unemployment rate in the region hold steady, Statistics Canada said Friday.

The jobless rate in the National Capital Region stood at 4.4 per cent last month, the same as it was in November, according to the agency’s labour force survey. 

Even though the total number of workers employed in Ottawa-Gatineau fell below 800,000 in December after rising above that mark the previous month, the region’s labour force ​– which includes those working and looking for work ​– shrank by about 1,400 people to just shy of 836,000. The participation rate, the percentage of the region’s working-age population that is employed or looking for work, also dropped from 71 per cent in November to 70.8 per cent last month. 

Two of Ottawa-Gatineau’s major employers – tech and government – saw their job figures move in opposite directions to close out 2019.

The tech sector took a hit in December, employing 3,100 fewer workers than in the previous month. The total tech employment figure of 42,700 was the sector’s lowest since last January.

Government agencies, meanwhile, expanded their payrolls last month. The public administration sector employed a total of 178,600 people in December, up from 176,900 a month earlier.

Ottawa-Gatineau’s retail sector posted the biggest job gains in the run-up to the all-important Christmas shopping season, adding 3,900 positions. Other sectors that boosted their ranks included education (up 1,600 jobs) and accommodation and food services (up 1,000).

Those gains were offset by job losses in construction (down 1,800 positions), transportation and warehousing (down 1,200), professional, scientific and technical services (down 2,600) and culture and recreation (down 2,100).

Nationally, the Canadian job market bounced back in December to post a gain of 35,200 jobs and reverse some of the losses in November, which saw the biggest monthly loss since the financial crisis.

The national unemployment rate also fell to 5.6 per cent compared with 5.9 per cent in November, when the country lost 71,200 jobs.

Statistics Canada said the gain in jobs came as the number of private sector employees rose by 56,900, offset by a loss of 21,500 public sector jobs. The number of self-employed fell by 200.

Full-time employment rose by 38,400 jobs, while the number of part-time jobs fell by 3,200.

Robert Kavcic, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets, said the jobs report will allow the Bank of Canada to breathe easier, as the job market finished 2019 on a solid note following some weakness in October and November.

“This should help ease the Bank of Canada's concern at least that the labour market wasn't really breaking down at the end of 2019,” he said.

Kavcic said the job losses in November were a “recession-like” figure, but the other economic data didn't corroborate the report.

The jobs report is notoriously volatile, but the trend in the second half of last year was softer than the start of the year.

Kavcic said he doesn't expect to see a return to the job gains seen in the first half of last year after the weakness in the fourth quarter of 2019.

“We're not going to be getting 30,000 or 40,000 jobs per month like we saw through the first half of 2019 ​– we're probably going to be looking at more something like 15,000, maybe high teens in terms of monthly job growth,” he said.

The Canadian economy added 320,300 jobs for all of 2019, including 282,800 full-time positions and 37,500 part-time jobs.

Sherry Cooper, chief economist at Dominion Lending Centres, said the December employment report confirms the Bank of Canada's current policy stance that despite headwinds, the economy remains relatively resilient and that further interest rate cuts are unnecessary.

“This assessment can change on a dime in today's uncertain world, but for now, the central bank is likely to remain on hold,” she said.

The Bank of Canada is set to make its next interest rate decision and release its updated monetary policy report on Jan. 22.

The central bank has kept its key interest rate on hold at 1.75 per cent for more than a year even as many of its international peers, including the U.S. Federal Reserve, have moved to cut rates and loosen monetary policy in response to weakness in the global economy.

TD Bank senior economist Brian DePratto said the jobs report Friday was consistent with recent comments by Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz.

“Some aspects of the jobs data, such as wages, have been performing well, while others, such as hours, have not been.

“It seems we'll have to wait for this month's monetary policy report to see where the governor and his team land in interpreting these and other recent trends.”

The overall gain in jobs in December came as the goods-producing sector added 15,700 jobs, helped by an increase of 17,000 jobs in the construction industry. Meanwhile, the services-producing sector added 19,400 jobs as the accommodation and food services industry gained 24,900 jobs.

Regionally, Ontario and Quebec led the job gains.

Ontario added 25,100 jobs in December, boosted by gains in construction and public administration. Quebec added 21,100 jobs in the month, helped by gains in the accommodation and food services sector as well as manufacturing.

Newfoundland and Labrador lost 5,000 jobs in December.

– With files from the Canadian Press