OPINION: About those jobless numbers

George Mathewson

Sarnia still has not yet fully recovered from the Great Recession of 2008, but it is getting there.

Another good sign arrived last week in a report showing Sarnia-Lambton’s unemployment rate fell to 7.3% in November. That’s the lowest it’s been in five years, and a pretty dramatic improvement from early in 2012 when the local jobless rate peaked at nearly 12%.

In tone, the labour market analysis by the Sarnia Lambton Workforce Development Board sounds cautiously optimistic.

“The Sarnia Lambton labour market is starting to regain its strength,” it concludes. “There are more people working and fewer people unemployed in 2014 compared to 2013.”

Labour market numbers don’t tell the whole story, of course. Stats can’t feed the hungry, and some people in Sarnia-Lambton have yet to see any real improvement in economic security.

So, while 500 fewer residents were unemployed last year, the same number of children’s parents relied on the Inn of the Good Shepherd for classroom kits, because they couldn’t afford school supplies and still pay the rent.

So, while 1,300 more Sarnia-Lambton residents found work last year, an equal number of children received meals from the food bank every two months.

The unemployment rate is helpful is assessing the overall economic health of a community. But as the report’s author, Catherine Gordon, acknowledged, it has built-in limitations.

It doesn’t tell you, for example, how many people in part-time jobs want full-time work. Or how many people in temp positions want something permanent. Even more problematic, the jobless rate can’t tell you how many people have simply given up looking for work.

That’s a problem in a city like Sarnia, where half the people are 45 or older. I know many who lost jobs in the economic downturn who were closing in on retirement.  After punching the clock for decades and putting a little aside, they suddenly found themselves in the unemployment line.

Experience is supposed to count for something, but the reality is most employers want newer skill sets. Finding a job when you’re over 50 poses big, sometimes impossible, challenges.

Nevertheless, the SLWDB analysis is helpful. Our unemployment rate – imperfect as it is – is headed down, not up.

And that is good news for Sarnia.