By Eric Blake

When you work in policy, the state of the job market can dominate discussions. There are good reasons for this. A healthy job market, as Ray Ivany helpfully reminded us, is critical. That said, amid all of this debate it can be hard to separate the performance of Halifax from the rest of Nova Scotia. This is important because it is hard to improve if you do not even know your starting point.

To help clarify things, I decided to compare Halifax to the other 14 largest cities in Canada on a few labour market indicators. Admittedly, this does not include important measures such as youth employment or wages but those are topics for another post.

First up, the all-important unemployment rate:

At first glance this is not the greatest result; being in a tie for 8th out of 15 will not get you in the record books. Still, there are positives: Halifax is tied with Vancouver and has a significantly lower unemployment rate than Montreal and Toronto. Our rate of 6.6% is also lower than the Canadian average of 7.1% and is significantly better than the 11.4% unemployment the rest of Nova Scotia has to deal with.

While the unemployment rate is useful, it has problems. A city’s unemployment rate can get better even if the job market gets worse. For example, if people are so discouraged that they give up looking for work altogether it will lower the unemployment rate. To account for that, you also need to look at the employment rate and the participation rate to see if people are really engaged in the job market. If you are curious, the employment rate is just the percentage of people with a job, while the participation rate is the percentage of people that have a job or are looking for work. 

These indicators show Halifax in a much better light, but if you look closer, it is clear we should not get too excited. While Halifax may be tied for fourth on both measures, it is only 0.4 percentage points away from being tied for 7th on the employment rate and 0.8 percentage points from being 6th on the participation rate. That said, Halifax is doing an admirable job keeping a large percentage of its population engaged and employed. This is even more impressive when compared with the employment rate of 52.2% and participation rate of 58.9% in the rest of the province.

So what does this all mean?

It means that when judged against the big Canadian cities that are Halifax’s real competition, we are somewhere in the middle. An optimist would say that Halifax performs pretty well against some of the best cities in Canada and is in a different league than other areas of the province. A pessimist would argue that we will continue to lose people to more lucrative job opportunities in Calgary and Edmonton, and the cultural amenities of cities like Toronto.

What do I think? Considering the economic climate in the Maritimes, the fact that Halifax has a labour market that competes with, and sometimes beats, the biggest cities in Canada is something to celebrate. The conventional wisdom that Halifax is a perpetually struggling city does not hold up that well when you dig into the data. We certainly have room to improve, but we are starting from a stronger position than most of us think.

Eric Blake is the Policy and Research Analyst for the Halifax Chamber of Commerce. His responsibilities include providing supporting research for the Chamber’s policy positions; drafting its submissions to government; and coordinating the Chamber’s two Task Forces and its Energy Committee.  Eric studied International Relations and Economics at Mount Allison University before completing a Masters of Public Administration at Queen’s University.  He also spent a year traveling New Zealand with his fiancée and came back with a love of meat pies and Kiwis (the animal). He can be reached at (902) 481-1351 or eric@halifaxchamber.com.