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Canada a nation of retail clerks, but what does that really say?

A Best Buy employee looks over a cellphone contract for a customer at a Best Buy in Mountain View, Calif. Consumers spent less on autos, clothing and furniture, leaving retail sales unchanged in August. The lack of growth in retail sales during a month of wild stock market fluctuations may increase recession fears. (AP Photo)

If you've watched the 1994 comedy Clerks, you might shudder at findings in the 2011 National Household Survey that show more Canadians work as retail sales people than any other job in the country. Are we a nation of know-it-all-do-nothings could be one question that comes to mind.

Probably not and a job in retail sales is a fine enough job. But the finding does imply a decent chunk of the labour market is comprised of lower-paying jobs. At the same time, the survey released on Wednesday also showed more people are getting higher education. If there are more people getting educated, but the most common job is in retail sales, it doesn't paint a very rosy outlook for university grads.

It may be a two simplistic conclusion, but either way it does raise the broader debate about Canada's jobs mismatch gap. On the one hand, students and post-secondary graduates generally feel overeducated and underemployed; on the other, Ottawa and provinces say much needs to be done to close that gap, particularly with regards to skilled trades, though it's unclear and controversial how they'll get there.

At roughly $13 an hour, retail sales jobs are lower than the country-wide average at $23, says Thomas Lemieux, a professor at the University of British Columbia's Vancouver School of Economics. "We have more and more educated people. We should see that reflected in the job composition," he says.

"We definitely need more data to figure out whether there's really a disconnect."

We know more Canadians work in retail than any other sector with 1.9 million workers, representing 11.5 per cent of the country's total workforce of nearly 18 million, the survey showed.

And a "retail salesperson" working in a range of areas from autos, food and beverage to home furnishings, ranked as the most common occupation for both women (4.7 per cent) and men (3.3 per cent) aged 15 years and over. Retail trade is essentially defined as stores that sell merchandise.

But the survey, the second in a series that replaces the long-form mandatory census, does not provide much meat needed to do an apples-to-apples comparison. How do the occupations compare to previous years? When people say they study a certain field, do they actually land the right job when they're finished school. What does the income picture look like for university graduates?

Those are some of the questions that remain, and will take time to answer. Later this summer, some data around earnings will help fill in the blanks, says Lemieux. Specifically, that is are the earnings of educated people growing, shrinking, stagnant? Another factor that muddies the bigger debate is the fact that some people have unfortunately graduated during or shortly after the Great Recession, which makes the job hunt that much more challenging.

The industry is clearly an important one for jobs growth, even though its contribution to overall national growth is relatively small. After all we've been through, at this point in the economy, any job is a good job, says Benjamin Reitzes, an economist at BMO Capital Markets.

"Jobs are jobs. We're happy to have as many as we can get, of any variety," he says. "There is demand for retail activity and therefore there is employment demand as well."

Recent data showed Canada's economy added a eye-popping 95,000 jobs, the biggest gain in more than a decade and just shy of a setting a new record, though that pace won't likely last as jobs figures are volatile.

The work of retail sales people is important in helping to prop up the economy, slacker or not as depicted in Clerks. That much is clear in the numbers. But the data also shines light on Canada as a nation of retail clerks -- or whatever title you want to use, associates, person, professionals, representatives -- even as governments have tried to push people toward trades. We've all likely wondered whether we're training students to become baristas or other service-oriented workers. This might be one of those times.

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