2011 National Household Survey: Unemployment, Immigration and Education
Ryan Berlin
The Urban Futures Institute

According to the latest batch of 2011 National Household Survey (NHS) data, British Columbia’s unemployment rate stood at 7.8 percent in the spring of 2011, up from 6.0 percent five years earlier. In order to provide some context for this change, it’s useful to briefly consider a few different dimensions of unemployment in BC—specifically, how different groups of people have fared and the role that education plays. While many of the findings are consistent with longer-term trends seen through earlier Census data releases, a few may come as a surprise.

Relative to an overall provincial unemployment rate of 7.8 percent, recent immigrants (those who moved to Canada between 2006 and 2011) had a rate that stood at 11.1 percent in 2011, well above the provincial average. (Note that this is not due to differences in the age composition of these two groups, as recent immigrants have higher unemployment rates across almost all age groups.)

Similarly, non-immigrants (those born in Canada), also had a higher-than-average unemployment rate of 7.9 percent (0.1 percentage points higher than the overall average). Perhaps most interesting was that earlier immigrants (those who moved to Canada prior to 2006)had the lowest unemployment rate of any group, averaging  6.8 percent—a full percentage point below the provincial average.


This relationship between unemployment in the earlier immigrant and non-immigrant segments of BC’s population changed over the previous five years. While the unemployment rate for earlier immigrants was 6.2 percent in 2006, for non-immigrants it was 5.9 percent; thus, the unemployment rate for earlier immigrants rose by only 0.6 percentage points over five years while the rate for non-immigrants rose by two full percentage points.

The increase in rates for both of these groups compared to an overall increase in the unemployment rate of 1.8 percentage points and a rate for recent immigrants that rose by 3.2 percentage points. The primary driver to this trend was the economic downturn that began in 2008 following robust economic and employment growth over the previous five years.

Without delving too far into recent data on visible minority status, it is worth noting that unemployment rates were higher for the visible minority population here in BC than they were in the non-visible minority segment (8.4 versus 7.5 percent). This was not the case for a couple of specific visible minority groups, however: unemployment rates for the Japanese (6.5 percent) and Filipino (5.3 percent) segments actually fell below the rates for the non-visible minority population. These patterns also generally held when considered on an age basis.

Yet another dimension that can be explored through the new NHS data is that of unemployment rates and education levels. More specifically, the 2011 NHS data show that higher levels of educational attainment are associated with lower unemployment rates—a correlation that has been seen through most Census counts.

Compared to an overall unemployment rate of 7.8 percent, those with a high school level education (or lower) experienced unemployment rates of 9.1 percent (high school diploma) and 14.9 percent (no high school diploma). All other groups had unemployment rates that were below the provincial average. While the lowest unemployment rate was associated with those who held at least a bachelor-level degree from a university (5.3 percent), it is interesting to note that those with a college, CEGEP, or other diploma or certificate had a lower rate (6.0 percent) than those who had some university education—but no degree—below a bachelor level (6.4 percent). Furthermore, in comparing unemployment rates for those who completed a university degree (5.3 percent unemployment) and for those who attended university but did not complete a degree (6.4 percent), it appears that when it comes to a university education, it pays to finish what you start. Furthermore, when considering changes in unemployment by education level attained, it appears that education serves as somewhat of a buffer in an environment of rising unemployment rates: between 2006 and 2011 the greatest increase in rates was seen in the segment with no high school diploma (a 3.8 percentage point increase), while the lowest was seen in the segment with a university bachelor degree or higher (a 0.8 percentage point increase).

Again, while the findings related to unemployment and education generally hold when considered across age groups, it is worth noting that unemployment rates for those with an apprenticeship or trades certificate and those with a college diploma were both, in the 15 to 24 age group, lower than those for university graduates. Why this is the case is unclear, with one possible reason being that people in the two former categories may have more immediately-applicable skills that allow them to transition into the workforce more quickly than those with a more academic background. Alternatively this could be the result of trades and college programs being shorter in duration than their university degree counterparts, allowing those with trades certificates and college diplomas to find work while still in the 15 to 24 age range, while proportionally more university graduates are employed once they age into the 25-plus group (a research topic for another day).

While for us the preceding summary of unemployment rates by immigrant status and education is interesting—at the same time reinforcing and challenging our perspectives on the labour market—it really only represents the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what can be uncovered from within the vast array of labour-related data that were recently released as part of the 2011 NHS. Stay tuned for a more detailed analysis of NHS data that will follow over the coming weeks, months, and years.