It's not the Apocalypse, but it's not Utopia

Half a year ago, in a story I wrote about Statistics Canada’s labour force survey, I led with the following: “The good news is: the bad news is probably not so bad.”

I waited for a while, then gave up waiting, for accusations of gratuitous positivity.

Journalistic fairness sometimes takes on a symmetrical form: if I am to say plainly that the bad news is probably not so bad, then it is logical that I also report honestly when the good news is probably not so good.

And such is the case in the most recent StatsCan story, under which, in the comments section, Mayor David Henderson suggests I have twisted positive news into negative.

His Worship is doing his job, of course, as I am doing mine. But it helps to put this all in perspective.

Back in August, I was reporting on StatsCan employment numbers for July that indicated there were 2,700 fewer jobs in the Brockville area than the same month a year earlier.

Those numbers seemed apocalyptic at the time. Even with the emptying out of Abbott Labs, the loss of Purolator and other losses, it made no sense that nearly 3,000 jobs had bled out of the area.

Things were bad, but not that bad.

Which is why I contacted Jason Gilmore, a senior analyst who works on StatsCan's labour force survey, who explained a few things.

For instance, said Gilmore, the labour force statistics are based on population numbers that reflect working-age people only:15 and up.

More to the point, they are not based on StatsCan's official population count, but are rather estimates.

StatsCan collects data in "pockets," or sub-regions within the overall census agglomeration of Brockville, Elizabethtown-Kitley and Augusta. It collects this data from a few of these pockets and then extrapolates for the entire area.

The pockets surveyed vary periodically, and some of those will have more "core working age people" than others.

In other words, due to statistical variability, sometimes the news will be too good to be true, and at other times it will be too bad to be true. What matters is whether the trend the numbers point to is positive or negative.

And so, if the loss of 2,700 jobs seemed apocalyptic in the middle of summer, so does this latest good news – a whopping gain of 6,200 jobs in the wintry gloom of January – seem positively Utopian.

Here’s a dead giveaway: that same comparison shows the tri-municipal population grew from 39,900 in January 2013 to 43,900 last month.

Where did those 4,000 new residents come from? Did they all settle into Tall Ships Landing?

The answer is they came from statistical variability, the result of extrapolating from one population “pocket” rather than another.

With all that in mind, please let me reiterate: I did not say the news is bad. In fact, I reported the news seems to be mostly good.

Rather than the wasteland some might have expected after the closure of Abbott Labs and the anemic Manpower Q1 jobs forecast, economic development director Dave Paul is instead picking up some promising vibes.

And the statistics, while unable, given their methodology, to provide us with the whole truth, are at the least pointing us in a direction. That’s all they can do.

This time around, it’s a direction that remains more promising than the one it was pointing in last summer.

It’s just that it isn’t Utopia.