Why is PEPiN collecting data on precarious employment?

PEPiN stands for Poverty and Precarious Employment in Niagara. PEPiN is collecting data on precarious employment in Niagara because there are no reliable or valid measures of precarious employment in Niagara. In this blog post, I explain in plain English what this sentence means.

First, let’s define what we mean by precarious employment. As our telephone survey script reveals, precarious employment takes many forms:

Precarious employment means work that is some combination of part-time, without benefits, seasonal, variable income, on-call, on a limited-term contract or is performed by an owner-operated firm without employees. Thus, there are many kinds of precarious employment. This includes everything from farm workers to waitresses to substitute teachers to computer programmers.

In other words, not everyone in precarious employment is a high school student working at a low-wage fast-food restaurant. Increasingly, precarious employment is reported to be happening outside of the retail sector. Many people (especially those with a standard employment contract) might find this development surprising. Furthermore, not all forms of precarious employment are low-wage.

To help capture this spectrum, the PEPSO report measures precarious employment on a spectrum defined by ten (10) questions, none of which refer to amount of income. The more questions one answers affirmatively, the more precarious is one’s employment, regardless of industry or occupation (we will cover this in a later blog post, but if you are impatient, you can see them in Appendix B of The Precarity Penalty). Building on the shoulders of giants, we adopt this measure as well.

Second, let’s explain what reliable and valid actually mean. A reliable measurement is one that measures the thing being measured in a consistent way. If every reading of my bathroom scale swings wildly within 100 pounds of my weight, the scale does not produce a very reliable measure. If, on the other hand, the weight reported tends to vary little from reading to reading when I get off and then get back on it, then the measure is fairly reliable. A valid measurement is one that actually measures the thing it seeks to measure, and not something else. If my bathroom scale mysteriously measures how many minutes I slept the night before instead of my weight, this measurement is not valid. If however, it consistently measures only my weight, it is valid.

However, just because a measure is reliable doesn’t mean it is valid, and vice-versa. Let’s continue with the bathroom scale analogy. In the first example above, my unreliable bathroom scale does produce a valid measure. It measures my weight. However, it does not measure my weight in a consistent fashion. The first time I step on, I weigh 164 pounds. The next minute, I register 323 pounds. The third time in as many minutes, 100 pounds. In the second example, my bathroom scale produces a reliable measurement of how many minutes I slept the night before. It does this reliably every time I step on it. Unfortunately, my clock does that, too. As a bathroom scale, it is supposed to measure my weight. Not time sleeping. Thus, its measurement is not valid.

In both these examples, the bathroom scale is the ‘instrument.’ During PEPiN’s first stage of data collection (which began in mid-May) the telephone survey is the instrument. This survey consists of seven (7) sets of questions (we discuss these in a later post). The answer to each question becomes a measurement. These survey questions were modeled closely after another survey instrument designed by McMaster University’s Professor Wayne Lewchuk and his colleagues at PEPSO and the United Way of Toronto and York Region and used to collect data on precarious employment in the Greater Toronto Area and Hamilton. The findings from analyzing these data were published in PEPSO’s 2015 report called The Precarity Penalty.

Finally, let’s define ‘Niagara.’ Niagara refers to the twelve (12) municipalities in Niagara . If your browser runs Java, and you want to test your knowledge about Niagara’s basic geography, click here.

Some measures of Niagara’s economy only focus on the St. Catharines Niagara Census Metropolitan Area (CMA). This excludes two (2) of Niagara’s fastest growing regions, Grimsby and West Lincoln. By including all twelve (12) of Niagara’s municipal governments, and the Regional Municipality of Niagara, Niagara’s policy makers gain a more encompassing understanding of how precarious employment might or might not vary across our twelve municipalities.

In summary, we’ve explained why PEPiN is collecting data on precarious employment in Niagara. In the next blog post, we will also explain why anyone would want to do this.

Vosko, Leah (Ed.) (2006) Precarious Employment Understanding Labour Market Insecurity in Canada. Montreal : McGill-Queen’s University Press.