September jobs gain gets labour market to pre-pandemic levels, but not full recovery

·5 min read

OTTAWA — Canada's economy marked a milestone last month as employment returned to pre-pandemic levels for the first time, recouping the remainder of three millions jobs lost over a year ago with a gain of 157,000 jobs in September.

The gains in September were widespread and concentrated in full-time work, with notable gains in industries where many workers continue to work remotely. Some public-sector gains were related to the Sept. 20 federal election.

Employment for core-aged women, those between 25 and 54, finally recovered as the school year began, months after they bore a disproportionate brunt of job losses in what's been dubbed a "shecession."

The bumpy return from last year's historic employment drop comes with a few caveats, with economists warning we aren't in the clear yet.

As the unemployment rate hit 6.9 per cent last month, down from 7.1 per cent in August, the number of unemployed Canadians still remains above pre-pandemic levels. The rate would have been 8.9 per cent in September, down from 9.1 per cent in August, had the agency included in calculations Canadians who wanted to work but didn't search for a job.

The rebound to pre-pandemic levels also doesn't account for population growth and where the country would have been absent the shock of COVID-19. Statistics Canada estimated the economy would need between 110,000 and 270,000 more jobs to close that gap.

Brendon Bernard, senior economist with job-posting site Indeed, said this second milestone is likely to be reached next year.

Some high-contact sectors like retail, which lost 20,000 jobs in September, and accommodation and food services, which saw its first decline in five months as 27,000 jobs were lost, remain further from pre-pandemic levels despite an easing of restrictions.

"Ultimately, it is the pandemic that will decide when those sectors can completely get back to full health," said BMO chief economist Douglas Porter.

"While today is cause for celebration, we do have to be mindful that not every sector, not every region has completely recovered by any means. The job is not done."

The ranks of long-term unemployed who have been without work for six month or more was little changed last month at 389,000, more than double the number recorded in February 2020.

Leah Nord, senior director of workforce strategies with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said there is little information to explain why those workers remain unsuccessful in their ongoing job hunt.

"Let's analyze that and let's look at that policy tool box beyond what we've been doing today, which is, don't get me wrong, necessary during the pandemic. But to move us into recovery, what needs to be done?"

Anthony Mantione, a senior economist with the Labour Market Information Council, said one reason could be a skills mismatch with available jobs. He suggested focusing efforts on long-term unemployed workers could be beneficial as they account for one-quarter of all unemployed will have more difficulty landing a job the longer they are out of work.

Friday's jobs report landed two weeks before a suite of federal supports are to expire on Oct. 23. The Trudeau Liberals are being pressed to reshape and extend the measures for another month, with the minority government being pushed politically by the NDP to not cut support.

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland spoke this week about more targeted business supports to lagging sectors like tourism. On Friday, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough said the government would provide support for workers who need it.

"While Canadians are back to work and recovery is underway across the country, we know that the fourth wave is here and has hit some regions harder than others. At the same time, there are sectors of the economy that continue to face challenges," she said. in a statement.

"That's why our emergency supports are still here for Canadians and the Canadian businesses who need them."

Similarly, the Bank of Canada has about two weeks to decide what it will do to its stimulus program before its next interest rate announcement on Oct. 27.

The central bank has tracked jobs numbers in deliberations about the path for its key rate and the bond-buying programs that aim to encourage low interest rates and prod consumer spending.

On Thursday, Bank of Canada governor Tiff Macklem said frictions in the labour market come from the unique circumstances of the pandemic, with some workers not wanting to return over health concerns, while childcare responsibilities may hold back others.

"What we're seeing here is it is more complicated to open the economy than to close it, and this process of companies finding workers and workers finding the right jobs, it's taking some time," Macklem said.

He also said the central bank is tracking wage growth so it doesn't become an independent driver of inflation, which is running above the bank's target.

Statistics Canada said wages rose year-over-year by 1.7 per cent in September, and by 4.6 per cent compared to 2019, a pace Porter noted was good, but not strong.

CIBC senior economist Royce Mendes said September's headline jobs figures likely seals the deal that the Bank of Canada will further ease the pace of its bond-buying program during a schedule rate announcement on Oct. 27.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 8, 2021.

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press

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