March saw another solid gain in B.C.’s headline
employment. According to Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey, the total number of people working in the province rose another 35,000 in March. This follows a hefty 26,600 gain in February. These solid back-to-back gains were enough to lift total employment in B.C. above last February’s pre-pandemic level, a welcome milestone. Based on the topline employment figure, B.C. stands out as the only province where employment is above last February’s level.
While the rebound in overall employment is good news, it does not give a complete picture of developments in the labour market. Segmenting private sector employees and public sector employees shows the recovery in private sector hiring and re-hiring remains much weaker than that in the public sector. The number of employees on private sector payrolls is still well below last February's level (still down 2.5%), and after six months of strong recovery the trend has levelled off. In contrast, the number employees in the public sector is up 10.3% compared to February of 2020.
The recovery in headline employment in B.C. has been significantly boosted by the steep increase in public sector hiring.
Comparing the employment recovery across provinces underscores the outsized influence of public sector job gains.
Turning first to total employment, as the figure below shows, in terms of the headline figure B.C. is the only province where overall employment is above last February’s level.
But looking just at the private sector paints a different picture. The number of private sector employees in B.C. is down 2.5% compared to February 2020 (translating into 43,000 fewer jobs) and the decline is more closely aligned with conditions in other provinces. B.C. ranks third in the recovery of private sector jobs among the ten provinces and is not much ahead of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Manitoba and Ontario lead the country in this area, while the steepest private sector job losses are in Atlantic Canada.
The other panel in the same figure below shows the very different trend for public sector employment. Over the past 13 months, B.C. has recorded the strongest increase in public sector hiring of any province. Additional government resources have been necessary during the pandemic, so some additional hiring would be expected. However, B.C. does stand out with public sector payrolls swelling at more than three times the pace in Alberta and four times faster than in Ontario.
The need for additional health care workers has boosted hiring activity in the broad public sector. Approximately half of recently added public sector employees in B.C. are in the health care sector. The pace of health care hiring is greater in B.C. compared to other provinces, but the big difference lies in what’s been happening to public administration jobs. Approximately 40% of B.C.’s new public sector jobs are in public administration – essentially government administration and some areas of service provision (e.g., at the municipal level). Other provinces have seen smaller gains in public administration jobs. In B.C., public administration jobs are up more than 14% over the past 13 months. The comparable Canadian figure is 3%, while in Ontario public administration employment has been flat and it is down slightly in Alberta.
The bottom line is this: yes, the job market in B.C. continues to recover. But the story is now disproportionately one of expanding public sector employment. Policy makers need to recognize the labour market revival from the carnage of last spring is much weaker in the business sector than the top line figure suggests. Private sector payroll jobs have not rebounded to last February’s level and in some B.C. industries employment is still significantly below where it stood in early 2020.
 The third broad class of workers making up total employment, or the headline number, is self-employment. The number of self-employed jumped significantly in March and is now just ahead of last February’s level. Self-employment made a modest contribution to the recovery in headline employment.