The Abbotsford area’s unemployment rate dipped below the six per cent mark for the first time in nearly five years in February, according to Statistics Canada’s most recent labour force survey.
The survey, which was released Friday, showed Abbotsford-Mission’s unemployment rate had decreased to 5.9 per cent. That’s a decrease of 2.5 percentage points from last February and continued a downward trend that began in September. It’s also the first time the rate has been below six per cent since March of 2010.
The numbers are “very positive,” according to Wendy Dupley, the city’s director of economic development.
“What’s really significant is we’re now on par with Vancouver,” she said. “It supports what I’m hearing when I’m speaking to business here in this community, that there is a very positive feeling in the economy and where it’s heading.”
But despite the downward unemployment rate trend, Chamber of Commerce executive director Allan Asaph said local officials still need to focus on creating new jobs, pointing out the local job market hasn’t completely recovered from a dramatic slump that only ended last summer.
Between August 2013 and 2014, the total number of employed Abbotsford-Mission residents decreased by about 7,000 people. The only reason the unemployment rate did not skyrocket is because the number of people who said they are looking for work also fell dramatically.
“We have people that are disengaging themselves from the labour force,” Asaph said.
Both of those statistics have improved over the last six months – the number of people working has risen quicker than the number looking for work, leading to the drop in unemployment – but the previous losses have not yet been overcome.
The figures were also noted by University of the Fraser Valley economist Sean Parkinson, who observed that while the number of people employed or looking for work hasn’t changed much in five years, the area’s population has grown by around 8,000 people during that time.
“I think the bigger question is why are there so many more people [who] are not showing up in the labour force?”
Asaph is hopeful that the city’s new economic development program will include incentives that will promote the expansion and retention of local businesses.
“We need to get people working and we need to get more people working in the right kind of jobs,” he said. “We need to attract jobs to Abbotsford that are higher-paying [and] that have more stability to them.”
Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun predicted positive news this year.
“We have been doing lots of things behind the scenes,” he said, and said efforts have been made to make city hall more receptive to helping businesses on a case-by-case basis. He said the city needed to ensure business incentives didn’t result in costs to taxpayers.
District of Mission Mayor Randy Hawes said he hasn’t seen any particular uptick in employment in the District of Mission.
“To be honest, if [unemployment] has gone down, it hasn’t gone down a great deal that I can see,” Hawes said, noting the existence of empty storefronts.
Hawes said the district is working to build its industrial land base in the hope of attracting manufacturing businesses and the higher-paying jobs such enterprises often bring. He said the Agriculture Land Reserve (ALR) presents a challenge though, as some land in prime industrial positions near the highway and rail corridor sits in the ALR and often lies fallow or is occasionally used for growing hay.
Taking that land out of the ALR and placing property in areas less desirous to industry could help the region attract more employers, he said.