Ottawa's unemployment rate falls in February as region gains 15,000 jobs

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The National Capital Region’s economy continued to show signs of recovery in February as it added nearly 15,000 jobs last month, the latest figures from Statistics Canada show.

Ottawa-Gatineau’s unemployment rate dropped to 6.5 per cent in February, down from 6.7 per cent the previous month and its lowest level since the start of the pandemic, StatsCan said Friday in its latest labour market report. 

That’s a far cry from the 4.3 per cent jobless rate a year earlier when the region’s economy was still riding a pre-COVID high. Last month’s gains leave Ottawa-Gatineau 20,000 jobs short of where it was in February 2020.

Still, the region’s economy has been steadily adding jobs since last summer, and Ottawa-Gatineau’s unemployment rate is now a full three percentage points lower than it was at the height of business shutdowns last June.

Since then, the region has gained more than 50,000 jobs, StatsCan says. At the same time, Ottawa-Gatineau’s labour force has also grown by more than 35,000 as job-hunters resumed their search for work. (Statistics Canada’s data is based on a three-month rolling average.) 

Big gainers in February included two key drivers of the region’s economy, government and tech. The public administration sector added 2,500 jobs last month, while the tech sector ​– which had recorded a steady slide from more than 48,000 positions last summer to just 40,000 in January – rebounded to gain 4,800 jobs.

Retail gains

Meanwhile, industries battered by the pandemic such as retail and accommodation and food services also picked up last month as government restrictions on business openings were eased. The retail sector showed a net gain of 1,600 jobs, while accommodation and food services grew by 300. 

The professional services sector made the biggest jump last month, expanding by a net 6,200 positions.

On the flip side, the health-care sector shed a net 2,400 jobs in February. Manufacturing (a net loss of 1,900) and financial services (1,400) were also among the sectors that showed declines.

Nationally, StatsCan says the economy added 259,000 jobs in February, almost wiping out losses sustained over the previous two months.

The economy lost almost 213,000 jobs in January as lockdown measures erased months of gains, and marked the worst monthly declines since last April.

February's reopenings reversed that drop with gains largely in Ontario and Quebec, and in sectors highly affected by tightened public health restrictions.

The national unemployment rate fell to 8.2 per cent, the lowest level since March 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and down from the 9.4 per cent recorded in January.

Statistics Canada says the unemployment rate would have been 10.7 per cent in February had it included in calculations Canadians who wanted to work but didn't search for a job.

The figures blew past expectations of a gain of 75,000 and an unemployment rate of 9.2 per cent, according to financial data firm Refinitiv.

CIBC senior economist Royce Mendes wrote that the quick turnaround in jobs numbers is reminiscent of the first wave of the pandemic when employment rebounded far faster than expected as the economy began reopening.

However, he said in a note that the labour market has a long way to get back to where it was prior to COVID-19.

The gains now leave the country 599,100 jobs short of where it was in February of last year, or 3.1 per cent below pre-pandemic levels.

The federal government is keeping a close eye on the labour market, suggesting it will use jobs as a gauge for planned stimulus measures to be unveiled in a spring budget.

The Bank of Canada is also carefully monitoring employment levels, noting the uneven impacts of job losses in its reasoning this week for holding its key policy rate at 0.25 per cent.

– With additional reporting from the Canadian Press