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On job creation, it may be Canada's turn to be envious of the U.S. for a change

OTTAWA - Canadians could be forgiven for turning a little green with envy over the surge in employment occurring south of the border.

After leading the Western world in job creation in the years following the recession — as the Harper Conservative government is fond of reminding the public — the past year and a bit has not been so good.

The pattern has become familiar. On the first Friday of each month, Statistics Canada issues a report showing the economy gained or lost several thousand jobs, making up for the several thousand that were lost or gained the previous month. with one step forward and one step-back, Canada's labour market has largely stalled over most of the year.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Labor Department tables another strong employment report.

That's what happened Friday, when Statistics Canada announced the country added 25,800 new jobs in May, which, besides being all part-time, still didn't in numerical terms make up for the 29,000 lost the previous month.

In the United States, the jobs numbers went from strength to strength, adding 217,000 in May on top of 282,000 created in April.

It wasn't an aberration. Even allowing for a work force that is about 10 times the size of Canada's, the United States has been leaving its northern neighbour in the dust in terms of job creation for quite some time.

Over the past 12 months, Canada's economy has added 86,000 new jobs, for a 0.5 per cent increase. The U.S. has added 2.4 million, for a 1.7 per cent increase.

"We're pulling away from the rest of the world," said John Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo in the U.S.

That's something Canadians often heard from late finance minister Jim Flaherty. His successor, Joe Oliver, still says it but increasingly it's numbers from the more distant past that he trumpets.

Bank of Montreal senior economist Sal Guatieri says there's no denying that the U.S. is catching up on the jobs front and they are likely to keep posting stronger numbers for the rest of the year, or even beyond that.

But that's where the comparison ends. Even though it may not look like it in the monthly jobs reports, Americans still should be envious of Canada's labour market, he says, and some still are.

The New York Times is not buying the world jobs leader boast. A column on Friday was titled, "Good News on Jobs. Why Aren't We Happier?"

The upshot is that it took 6 1/2 years from the start of the recession for the U.S. to win back the 8.7 million jobs it lost during it.

By comparison Canada recovered all the 430,000 or so jobs lost during the 2008-09 slump in early 2011, and since has added 600,000 or so more.

Because of population growth, each country has more people to employ than in 2008.

CIBC deputy chief economist Benjamin Tal says that the comparison by this measure is in Canada's favour.

"Remember, they are starting from an extremely low base. So I don't think we should envy them," Tal says. "We didn't see the same decline in employment they saw. . . . They have much more capacity to grow and much more pent-up capacity."

Scotiabank economist Derek Holt agrees, but says too much can be made of the "Canada recovered first" rationale for accepting slower growth rates going forward.

The reality is, he says, Canada's two big growth engines — natural resources and housing — are at the top of their business cycles and have little room to grow. The U.S. economy is about to kick it into another gear.

"It's like being in a relay race and the exhausted runner is dropping out and passing the baton on to the new leader," he said. "From a financial markets standpoint in terms of things that drive Canadian versus U.S. interest rates, or the level of the currency, it's the relative growth going forward that matters much more."

All three Canadian economists agree that there are some positives to the slow jobs growth of late in Canada. Since the economy has continued to expand at about two per cent, it means producers are improving their productivity and becoming more competitive, something U.S. industry did early in the recovery cycle.

Holt adds that Canada may also be fortunate in being pulled along by a strong U.S. recovery in the next year or so, although, of course, it will have to settle for the back seat.

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