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Data points: B.C.'s labour market holds steady as trade starts the year off strong

Provincial employment rose 0.2 per cent January to February, while the value of seasonally adjusted exports rose 15 per cent month to month, from December to January
Construction workers in Vancouver. The sector lost 3

B.C.’s labour market held steady in February with a modest employment increase of 6,700 (0.2 per cent), adding to positive momentum in January.

With the latest gain – which was largely in full-time work – employment continued to trend higher and was ahead of a year ago (by 1.3 per cent) and up 4.2 per cent from pre-pandemic February 2020.

The unemployment rate also crept up to 5.1 per cent, exceeding five per cent for the first time since January 2022, but still at a level comparable to the pre-pandemic era.

This points to strength in the labour market. Moreover, growth in average hourly wages accelerated to 6.6 per cent year over year from 4.6 per cent in January. Part of this reflected a soft early 2022 during the Omicron wave. But even so, monthly wages picked up. 

In the Vancouver census metropolitan area, employment grew 0.6 per cent month to month in February, and the unemployment rate increased to 5.1 per cent from 4.7 per cent. 

On an industry basis, gains were mixed with goods-producing sectors in B.C. leading the way on agriculture strength. Employment in services-producing sectors edged down 0.1 per cent during the same month, but reflected significant swings among sectors. Notable decreases were reported in the information, culture and recreation sector (down 4,100 people or 2.8 per cent) and the transportation and warehousing sector (down 3,200 people or 2.4 per cent). Those losses were offset by hiring gains in sectors such as business, building and other support services and health care and social assistance. 

International trade started off the year strong in B.C. On a seasonally adjusted basis, the value of exports was $5.3 billion in January 2023, 15 per cent higher than the amount exported in December 2022 and close to the average monthly value in 2022. The value of imports traded in January 2023 was also higher compared to December 2022, climbing 10.2 per cent to $6.8 billion, which is well above the average month value in 2022 of $6.4 billion. On an unadjusted basis, year-over-year exports were up 6.1 per cent to $4.7 billion when compared to the same month last year, and year-over-year imports are up 21.4 per cent to $6.1 billion.

Within exports, 11 of 12 product categories saw increases in dollar volume. Leading the way was energy, in which dollar volume increased 36.8 per cent from the previous month to $2 billion in January 2023. Forestry products were also strong: 5.1 per cent higher than the previous month at $1.1 billion, although the amount is still 16.9 per cent lower than the average monthly value for 2022. Industrial chemical, plastic and rubber products was also 21.4 per cent higher. The lone product category that saw a decrease in value exported was motor vehicles and parts, which was 9.7 per cent lower.

Imports were more balanced in terms across categories. Half saw an increase in import value, while half saw a decrease. The largest increase was industrial machinery, which saw 60.2-per-cent higher value at $1.5 billion. This is in large part thanks to the construction of a new liquefied gas terminal in B.C., where the occasional delivery of high-value equipment is received and causes large variations in value. Energy imports fell from $603 million in December 2022 to $396 million January 2023, representing a 34.3-per-cent decline. 

Bryan Yu is chief economist at Central 1.