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(Adds government response)
By Louise Egan
OTTAWA, May 6 (Reuters) - Information on job vacancies provided by Canada's national statistics agency is not detailed enough to be of much use to policymakers and job seekers and can be improved, an official watchdog said in a report on Tuesday.
The report by Auditor-General Michael Ferguson underscored the challenge facing the Conservative government as it tries to tackle what it sees as one of the country's biggest economic problems: a shortage of skilled labor in some regions and sectors.
Statistics Canada's (Statscan) job vacancies report provides data on the national and provincial levels only, making it difficult to know which cities and areas are most likely to need workers. The job categories are defined too broadly and are therefore not very helpful, the report said.
"Users informed us that as a result of these shortcomings, available information on job vacancies is of limited value to them," the report added.
It cited the example of reported job vacancies in the province of Alberta, saying it was impossible to know if they were in Fort McMurray, the main town in the oil sands region in the northern part of the province, or in some other town.
Statscan should look into ways of filling the need for data from small areas and subpopulations, the auditor general said.
The report also said Statscan, which publishes 350 data products including market-moving economic indicators, should consult more with the private sector, municipal governments and nongovernmental groups to ensure that the data meets their needs. It relies too much on federal and provincial governments for feedback now, the report said.
The goal of the audit was to determine whether Statscan ensures the quality of its data, generates it efficiently and in response to user needs.
The report concluded generally that Statscan has systems in place to ensure the accuracy, timeliness and accessibility of its data.
It looked at four key data products: the consumer price index, the labor force survey, the survey of employment, payrolls and hours, and the 2011 national household survey, which was used in the latest census.
Shortcomings in the 2011 census, caused by switching to a voluntary questionnaire from a mandatory one, have been reported widely.
Gaps in labor market information are less known. Economists have long called for more data, but few of the recommendations made in a 2009 experts' report have been implemented.
This blind spot has added fuel to a raging political debate over the growing use of temporary foreign workers to fill jobs that employers say Canadians aren't available for. The government says employers can't find the right workers in certain regions and industries, but that view is based on business surveys and interviews rather than hard data.
In response to the auditor-general, Statscan outlined steps it is taking to address the data gaps, but it suggested it is limited by budget cuts that have forced it to cut costs by C$6.7 million ($6.2 million) since 2010.
The government said getting better labor market information is on its agenda. For example, Ottawa and the provinces are working on getting data from universities on employment outcomes for graduates, said Alexandra Fortier, spokeswoman for Employment Minister Jason Kenney.
"We will continue to work with Statistics Canada on ways to get more robust labor market information," she said.
The Statscan employment report that is most closely watched by markets, the labor force survey, provides data for cities and smaller geographical regions as well as at the national level. It is based on a household survey whereas the job vacancies data is derived from the survey of employment, payrolls and hours, which is based on data collected from businesses.
$1=$1.09 Canadian Reporting by Louise Egan; Editing by Peter Galloway