Canada's job market had a promising end to a year marked by big employment gains — but, unlike recent history, growth in 2016 was driven by a less-encouraging factor: an upsurge in part-time work.
Statistics Canada's year-end employment review Friday said the country added 153,700 net new part-time jobs last year and just 60,400 full-time positions — a number so low it was statistically insignificant.
The 2016 figure represented a stark shift from annual results in the past two years. The agency reported gains of 156,000 full-time jobs in 2014 and 147,000 in 2015.
Experts, however, were heartened by the job market's solid finish to the year.
The agency's numbers for December, also released Friday, showed full-time work climbed by 81,300 jobs — the biggest one-month increase in full-time positions in almost five years. Part-time employment dropped by 27,600 jobs in December.
Overall, the expansion of part-time positions helped the market bulk up by 214,100 net new jobs in 2016. Employment across the country increased by 1.2% last year compared with 2015, delivering the strongest annual job growth since 2012.
"It still didn't change the picture for the year — more than 70% of all the jobs created in 2016 were part time," said Craig Alexander, chief economist for the Conference Board of Canada.
"But certainly December ended on a strong note and it basically holds out the possibility that 2017's going to be a better year from a labour market point of view."
The unemployment rate last month crept up to 6.9%, from 6.8%, because more people entered the workforce. Alexander called the higher participation rate an encouraging sign that job hunters were more optimistic.
The net gain helped Canada beat expectations in December by adding 53,700 jobs. Economists had projected job growth to remain flat last month, according to Thomson Reuters.
While experts cautioned that monthly economic data is volatile, several were caught off guard by all the unexpected positives buried in the December employment figures.
"My jaw dropped at this Canadian jobs number," said Frances Donald, senior economist for Manulife Asset Management.
"The types of details that we want to see in a strong job-market data report are full-time jobs, higher participation rate, employees on payroll, broad job growth — and those were all present."
On the year-end numbers, Donald said the addition of part-time positions was better than the alternative: no job growth at all. She did, however, add that it also means the quality of the new positions was weaker than prior years.
The year-end data also showed most of the new employment in 2016 was created in the private sector, which gained 221,700 positions compared with 70,600 jobs that were added to public payrolls.
By sector, the 2016 job-market data contained differences.
The labour market shed 61,600 net jobs in goods-producing industries in 2016, while services sectors expanded by 275,800 positions.
By region, British Columbia saw the strongest job growth in 2016 with an expansion of 3.1%, followed by Quebec at 2.2%. The biggest employment decline among provinces was a 1.2% contraction in Saskatchewan, which was followed by Alberta's decrease of 0.8%.
In another data release Friday, Statistics Canada produced some healthy economic figures.
The agency said the country's trade balance with the world in November recorded a $526-million surplus — its first surplus in over two years.
Exports in November rose 4.3%, mostly due to an increase in sales of metal and non-metallic mineral products, the report said.
The agency said exports to places beyond the United States increased 9.5% to hit a record $12 billion, beating the previous record set in December 2011. It was the biggest monthly percentage increase since May 2008, the report added.
Exports to China, South Korea, Brazil and Japan all increased in November.
Imports, meanwhile, were up 0.7% in November as Canada brought in more energy products.