As vaccination rates continue to rise and public health restrictions are eased, most of the jobs lost during the pandemic should slowly return. But in every economic crisis, there are workers whose jobs disappear permanently, and this time will be no different.

Hard hit industries such as airlines and hospitality will likely have a longer path back to ‘normal.’ Permanent changes in how we work – more touchless and automated tools, more online delivery of services, fewer in-person office spaces – may also displace workers. Understanding who’s being left behind as the labour market recovers is key to putting the right supports in place, tailored to those workers’ needs.

Tracking workers who are unemployed or underemployed is an important first step in understanding who might be left behind in the recovery. It’s also important to look at how long workers have been out of work. If lots of workers from the same industry have been unemployed for several months, it’s a good sign that jobs in that industry are scarce, and it will be difficult for these workers to transition into new jobs. We also need to know who has dropped out of the labour market altogether. Together, these three categories help us understand the transitions happening in the labour market, and point policy makers in the right direction to offering the supports needed to bridge workers to better jobs.

Changing measurements

On the first point, unemployment and underemployment, Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey has been tracking what they call ‘labour underutilization’ since the beginning of the pandemic. This indicator was created because traditional unemployment indicators would have missed many of the ways the pandemic has affected workers.

The measure looks at four categories of workers:

  • still employed, but have worked less than half of their usual hours;
  • jobless and searching for work;
  • jobless and wanted work, but have given up looking; and
  • jobless but on temporary layoff or waiting for a job to start soon.

To get a more complete picture, we can include more related information from Statistics Canada: workers with part-time positions who would like more hours, and workers doing part-time jobs so they can meet unpaid care responsibilities.

Some of these indicators of underemployment have improved dramatically since the peak of April 2020. There are fewer workers on temporary layoff, fewer workers that have had their hours cut back by more than half, and fewer unemployed workers who are so discouraged by job prospects that they’re not looking even though they want to work.

This is definitely good news. But there are still a significant number of workers whose hours have been cut back dramatically, or who would like to work more hours but can’t find full-time work. This indicator signals that at least some of the recovery training supports that governments are offering should be available to employed workers, and that training needs to be flexible to accommodate work schedules. In addition, the number of workers who work part-time to accommodate unpaid care work signals the importance of affordable child care to the full economic participation of parents of young children.

Supporting transitions to new jobs

Long-term unemployment is defined as the number of workers who have been without a job and looking for work for more than 27 weeks. In April 2021, more than half a million workers had been unemployed for more than 27 weeks, and more than 300,000 of those workers had been unemployed for more than a year. Most of the increase here comes from occupations that have been directly affected by COVID-19 public health measures, such as food services and retail sales. These workers are most likely to need significant income and training supports to successfully transition into new employment, most likely in new occupations.

While long-term unemployment has increased for most demographic groups, young women are the exception. Many core age workers (25-54) and young men that have been out of work for months, haven’t given up searching for work. But more than 90,000 women aged 15-24 have dropped out of the labour market altogether. Many of these young women were employed in food services, or in retail jobs that have been hit hard by public health measures. We don’t know yet if these young women are taking on unpaid care work, if they will go to school for further training, or if their sectors will eventually bounce back.

There will be new jobs in several sectors, such as early childhood education and the green economy. Budget 2021 introduced some new money for training programs, but nearly all of it was employer focused. What we need for a just recovery is worker-focused training opportunities, and broad supports to make sure that workers who need training can get it.