In Ontario, where have all the workers gone?
By Morgan Sharp, Canada’s National Observer
With Ontario facing labour shortages in a number of industries, lobby groups, unions and labour experts are offering up ideas on how to solve the ongoing crisis.
The Ontario Chamber of Commerce says the province needs to promote skills training and offer a tax credit to companies for co-op students’ first year of wages, among other recommendations. Unions and workplace experts say there’s a simpler way for employers in the province to find good help: increase pay and improve working conditions.
Multiple reasons behind the shortage
There are a few different reasons why Ontario does not have enough qualified workers to fill vacancies in its classrooms, hospitals, care homes, farms, restaurants and other parts of a reopened society, experts say.
Many older workers decided to retire early during the pandemic, said Rafael Gomez, director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources, while primary caregivers, often women, were also pushed out of the workforce and didn’t return.
“People learned to live with one income if they had two in their family,” Gomez said.
This was especially common if children needed extra education help or parents got sick during the pandemic, either due to COVID or just as a function of aging, he explained.
“They found caring duties and a full-time job were not compatible.”
Immigration, meanwhile, froze up for two years shortly after Ottawa retooled the point system it uses to evaluate immigration applications to better align it with Canada’s labour market needs, making it harder for older workers and those lacking in-demand skills to enter the country.
“Bureaucratic systems aren’t the best at being nimble in response to changing economic conditions,” Gomez said.
He noted that early in the pandemic, the research centre he leads also called for provinces to fast-track recognition of workers’ foreign credentials to address shortages during the country’s economic recovery.
“None of that was done.”
Shortages before COVID
The ratio of new hires to job vacancies in sectors most susceptible to labour shortages was falling for years before COVID-19, labour data shows.
Bottlenecks have been made worse by licensing bodies reluctant to flood their industries with workers, Gomez said, while the Future Skills Centre’s Tricia Williams said post-secondary institutions lack incentives or directives to expand their course offerings to meet demand.
With more opportunities in the job market overall as baby boomers exit en masse, younger workers may also be getting a little more selective, said Williams, who is director of research, evaluation and knowledge mobilization at the federally funded outfit based out of Toronto Metropolitan University.
“People don’t necessarily want to wash dishes in a restaurant,” she said. “Wages and benefits are part of it, absolutely, but they’re not the only part.
“People also want predictability of their schedule, they want to be able to know that they can plan their child care.”
Workplace safety and wages
Workplace safety legislation could be expanded to codify things like a required notice of scheduling and other protections for contract workers, she added.
“For a long time, we’ve had legislation around workplace safety, but maybe our understanding of what safety or security in a workplace is needs to shift.”
Wages were pushed higher this year in private-sector workplaces, especially those with regulated entry points. Public-sector health and education workers currently negotiating new collective agreements are seeking to catch up.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees is asking for a raise of more than $3 an hour from the province’s Education Ministry for educational assistants, school library workers, custodians and other school staff. The ministry has proposed a counter-offer equal to about 55 cents an hour.
Meanwhile, nurses’ unions are involved in arbitration to resolve outstanding issues in their collective agreement. The process is expected to result in a two-year contract next month.
There are three times as many vacancies for registered practical nurses now compared to before the pandemic, CUPE’s health-care arm says, as these staff face rising violence from patients, high patient loads, increasing mental health trauma and infection risks.
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