How has precarious employment been measured in the past?

In PEPiN NERD BLOG POST #1, we unpacked (or explained) our answer to the question “Why is PEPiN collecting data on precarious employment?” However, our answer probably left many readers asking, “Yes, but don’t we already know we have precarious employment in Niagara?” The answer to this new question is simple: current employment statistics at the provincial or Federal level do not measure precarious employment directly.

Instead, current employment statistics use proxies to measure precarious employment. What is a proxy? A proxy is a measure of one thing that is used to stand in for another related thing. One common example of a proxy measure is the use of years of education for the kinds of skills someone possesses. While we would assume that someone who completed high school, college or university is literate and numerate, we don’t actually know that for certain. We haven’t tested their literacy or numeracy skills, we just asked how many years of education they completed. While we take it to be reasonably likely that persons completing high school, college or university possess some literacy or numeracy skills, measures of years of education don’t actually measure numeracy or literacy skills.  

The same thing happens with precarious employment. We assume a connection between what is measured, and what was actually measured. However, with proxies, we don’t verify the connection. More common proxies for precarious employment include the unemployment rate, part-time work, service sector work, and single-parent households. Table 1 shows these.

Proxy What it really measures What it misses about precarious employment
Unemployment rate The share of persons in the labour force who are not employed and have reported this to the unemployment office. Not all forms of precarious employment involve periods of unemployment.
Part-time work Number or share of persons working part-time Not all part-time work is precarious.
Employment in service sector Number or share of persons working in the service sector. Not all service-sector work is precarious.
Single-parent households Number of households with children and one parent. Not all parents in single-parent households experience precarious employment.
% of workers earning minimum wage Share of workers who earn minimum wage. Not all minimum wage jobs are precarious.

While a simple solution to our problem would be to ask “Are you precariously employed?”, this wouldn’t actually be a very reliable measure, either. The term is not well-defined in the popular imagination. This is because precarious employment takes place in different ways and in different intensities. In turn, this means we need to measure each of the possible ways it could happen. Nerd Blog #3 will discuss how we measure employment precarity.