Herald makes mountain out of monthly stats molehole (again)

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It was deja vu for me when I picked up Saturday’s Chronicle-Herald and read the headlines on the lead story: “N.S. takes jobs hit“. The sub-head had more bad news — “Unemployment rises by highest percentage in nation,” and the story went on to report that according to Statistics Canada’s monthly report, Nova Scotia “shed” 5,000 full-time jobs last month, partially offset by an increase of 3,700 part-time jobs.

The story and its page one, above-the-fold placement took me back about 15 years to when I was a research/communications person for the small but mighty two-member NDP caucus at the Nova Scotia legislature. As usual,  StatsCan had released its monthly Labour Force report at breakfast time on the first Friday morning of the month. The report showed what was then the customary double-digit unemployment rate. But the rate was little changed from the previous month, so there was no news there.

But as we scanned the report looking for some angle caucus could use in a release criticizing the government, we found something similar to what was reported in Saturday’s Herald — full-time jobs had dropped significantly and unemployment would have been much higher without an offsetting increase in part-time work. BINGO!

Out went a release by MLA John Holm, accusing the Liberal government of the day of creating a part-time economy. Even though Friday is generally a slow news day, I was still gobsmacked when I picked up the Saturday Herald to see a story based on the news release, front page, above the fold.  If memory serves, it also featured Holm’s photo.

Reader Beware

We had hit the flack’s mother lode with the news release, but I was a bit nervous. The release was based on a single month’s result from a survey, not a head count like the the census. StatsCan has always advised readers that its monthly labour force estimates are “based on a sample, and are therefore subject to sampling variability,”and that estimates for smaller geographic areas (like Nova Scotia?) will “have more variability.” Ergo, results can vary significantly from month to month.

I worried that due to this well-advertised variability, the next survey could well show an increase in full-time jobs, giving the government an opportunity to brag about its job-creation prowess. Luckily for us, that didn’t happen. Thanks to the short attention span endemic to politics, by the time StatsCan produced its next set of employment numbers, the parade had moved on.

As one whose team benefited back then from the Herald’s less-than-rigorous approach to the monthly labour force stats, I’m in no position to throw partisan stones at the paper’s coverage. What is sauce for the goose, etc. However, there are a few additional facts and considerations that readers could mull over before concluding, based on the Herald’s headline, that Nova Scotia is heading to unemployment hell in a handcart. Or, before they agree with the opposition parties that to deal with the unemployment “crisis”, the NDP government must lower the HST and cut fuel taxes.

Look for trends

First off, to use another fowl adage, one swallow does not a summer make, and one month does not constitute a trend. So far in 2011, employment has increased over the previous month three times (March, May and June). If those gains made the Herald front page, I missed it. The StatsCan monthly also reported decreases three times, February, April and famously, July.

There’s a similar pattern when you compare the first seven months of 2011 with January to July in 2010. Employment numbers for three months in 2011 are higher than the same month a year ago, four are lower. However — and there may be a story here — the losses exceeded the gains, especially in May when the year-to-year comparison showed a drop of 8,000 jobs. As a result, average monthly employment for the first seven months of 2011 is down 2,100 from the same period in 2010, and all of that loss is in full-time employment. That trend could continue — we’ll have to wait and see.

As for unemployment, readers will know that the world economy has been in a mess for almost four years now, so an increase in unemployment in Nova Scotia should come as no big surprise. But the Herald, in its rush to declare a one-swallow summer (or economic Armageddon) trumpeted the fact that Nova Scotia’s seasonally adjusted rate for July was up from 8.7% to 9.5%, the highest percentage increase in the nation that month.

But one unreported fact, and one under-reported one, provide some perspective. Unreported was that between 2008, when the economy began to tank, and 2010, the national unemployment rate increased by 31%, the rate in Nova Scotia by only 21% — or that the rate in June of 8.7% was lower than the 9.3% average rate for 2010.

The Herald did report that one reason for the increase in last month’s unemployment rate was a jump in the numbers coming into the workforce — more people in the workforce and fewer jobs equals a higher rate of unemployment. But there’s no mention of the general consensus that a larger workforce — or participation rate — is a good thing for the economy. What to many would be seen as good news — the increase in the participation rate from 63.7% to 64.1% — was treated as a problem.

One final point. Back when I was selecting facts and statistics to benefit my cause, the Internet was in its infancy. Flacks and hacks could provide context and perspective in their news releases or stories, but it took a lot of digging around in paper files. Nowadays, information is available at the click of a mouse. Some of the stats in this story come from a spreadsheet on the Nova Scotia Finance website containing data from the Labour Force Survey going back to the 1980s. It can be accessed here. It’s the place to go for spin-free information on Nova Scotia and Canada’s employment numbers. Too bad it’s terra incognita for the Herald.

Richard Starr has had careers as a journalist, public servant, broadcaster, political staffer and policy adviser. He lives in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. His book, “Power Failure,” published in May 2011, is available at Formac Publishing.

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