As a huge wildfire raged, Alberta's labour market continued to struggle last month — job losses mounted, the unemployment rate surged and total hours worked hit their lowest mark in 30 years.
Statistics Canada released its first batch of labour data that captures some of the fallout of a blaze that forced production shutdowns in Alberta's economically critical oilsands region and triggered the evacuation of Fort McMurray.
The report Friday found that Alberta's unemployment rate soared from 7.2 per cent to 7.8 per cent in May following the loss of 24,100 jobs across several industries. The biggest drops were seen in the resources and construction sectors.
The survey, taken for the week of May 15-21, also said the total number of hours worked in Alberta decreased 5.1 per cent — the largest monthly decline since May 1986.
However, the actual impact of the wildfire on Alberta's jobs numbers wasn't entirely clear.
Statistics Canada said it collected survey data last month for the sub-provincial area that includes Fort McMurray, but due to the May 3 evacuation, it did not gather numbers for the smaller census area that encompasses the city.
"Just looking at this with some common sense, it does kind of suggest that the wildfires did have a negative impact on the month," Bank of Montreal senior economist Robert Kavcic said Friday.
When the devastating fire broke out, the provincial economy had already been reeling from the sharp slide in oil prices.
In the 12 months leading up to May, employment in Alberta fell by 53,800 jobs or 2.3 per cent.
"The bigger picture is still going to be relative weakness in the province for some time, even though we've seen oil prices come back," Kavcic said.
"I think we're still in a much slower-growth environment than we've been used to in Alberta."
The story was different nationwide as the headline job numbers beat economists' expectations.
Across Canada, the labour force survey showed an overall gain of 13,800 jobs in May. The increase helped push the jobless rate down to 6.9 per cent from 7.1 per cent — its lowest level since last July.
A closer look at the data shows full-time work climbed by 60,500 jobs, while part-time positions slid by 46,800. The number of employee positions in Canada increased in May by 24,800, while self-employed jobs decreased by 11,100.
Overall, national employment in May was up 0.6 per cent compared to 12 months earlier, the report said.
But the number of more desirable private-sector positions fell by 5,200, while the labour force added 30,200 public-sector jobs. On top of that, fewer workers participated in the workforce, which helped pull down the unemployment rate.
Kavcic noted that wage growth dropped as well.
"When you scrub all of that out, it actually looks pretty neutral," he said of May's national job numbers.
Regionally, Ontario and Quebec each gained 21,600 jobs last month and saw their respective unemployment rates fall by 0.4 percentage points. Ontario's jobless rate slid to 6.6 per cent, while Quebec's dropped to 7.1.
"The regional disparity in job market performance continues to be the main theme in Canada's employment data," TD senior economist Leslie Preston wrote in a research note to clients.
"This disparity reflects Canada's ongoing adjustment to lower commodity prices."
Preston noted that over the past six months, the unemployment rates rose notably in the resource-producing provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador, Alberta and Saskatchewan, while over the same period, those rates dropped in Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia.
The data released Friday also showed that the category for workers aged 15 to 24 shed 35,400 jobs last month. Over the previous 12 months, losses in this category reached 82,400 — a 3.3 per cent decline.
The labour data surpassed expectations of a consensus of economists, who had predicted the country would add 3,800 jobs and the unemployment rate to stay at 7.1 per cent, according to Thomson Reuters.
The Canadian Press