The Great Supply Chain Inquisition
In October, Canada’s employment held remarkably steady, adding 31,000 jobs for a new total of 19,162,000 (+0.2%). In kind, the unemployment rate fell but only slightly, by 0.2% to a total of 6.7%. After finally reaching pre-pandemic levels in September, October’s numbers are cause for optimism—if only for the suggestion of relative stability—but new discourse asks if North America’s labour market will ever truly be what it once was.1
Gains were felt mostly in full time work, which rose by 53,000 among core aged workers in October. Part time work continued to lag however, and gains in retail (+72,000) were offset by sharp declines in accommodation and food services (-27,000).1 This trend may be evidence of a remarkable shift occurring within the workforce, and may herald some vision of “the workforce of the future”.1
Central to this theory is emergent discourse on the continent-wide labour shortage, or, as the Wall Street Journal put it—the epidemic of “missing workers”.2 But who are these workers, and where have they gone?1
Labour Force Survey by Region
In October, relative stability for most provinces was underscored by gains in Ontario and New Brunswick and losses in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.1
In Ontario employment rose for the fifth consecutive month, adding 37,000 (0.5%) jobs to its ranks. Most notably, these gains occurred in the services-producing sector, especially retail trade. This work typically represents the types of jobs held in part time capacities, and often by groups outside of core-aged demographics. Gains in retail trade could represent a true “reopening” of the economy—no doubt bolstered by an increased anticipation of demand ahead of the Christmas season.1
New Brunswick posted comparable gains of 3,000 (0.3%) in October. These gains were made primarily in full time work, and mostly among men aged 25 to 54. However, the unemployment rate remained unchanged for a fourth consecutive month at a concerning 9.1%.1
Meanwhile, there was little change in British Columbia and Quebec, and the Quebec Census Metropolitan Area continues to post the lowest unemployment rate of all CMAs totalling just 3.8%.1
In Manitoba, losses of 3,100 (-0.5%) punctuated September’s increase. Despite these losses, Manitoba still holds the lowest unemployment rate of all provinces at 5.3%. In Saskatchewan, employment fell by 6,500 jobs (-1.1%).1
Labour Force Survey by Sector
|Industry||October 2021 Jobs Change||September Change|
|Natural Resources ( Forestry, fishing, mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction)||-7.8||6.6|
|Transportation & Warehousing||-1.2||16.8|
|Finance & Insurance||7.4||27.4|
|Wholesale & Retail Trade||80.5||-2.4|
|Professional, Scientific and Technical Services||-21.8||29.6|
|Information, Culture and Recreation||15.1||32.5|
|Accommodation & Food Services||-27.0||-26.7|
|Business, Building & Other Support Services||-22.8||16.6|
Notable gains this month were made in retail trade, which increased by 72,000 (+3.3%) in October. These gains pushed employment in the industry back to it’s pre-pandemic levels for the very first time since March 2021. While many gains were made in part time work, most gains were had in full time work. These gains coincide but are not necessarily correlated with the end of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) on October 23, 2021.1
Otherwise, October brought a mixed bag of industry gains and losses. In addition to gains in retail trade, increases in “other” services (+21,000) and information, culture and recreation (+15,000) were contrasted by losses in accommodation and food services (-27,000), business, building and other support services (-23,000), and professional, scientific and technical services (-22,000).1
Accommodation and food services posted losses in October for the second consecutive month (-27,000; -2.6%). This number, Statcan reports, remains a remarkable 17% (-207,000) down from its pre-pandemic level. Additionally, Statcan recorded losses in professional, scientific and technical services for the first time since May 2020. In October, the number of people employed in this sector fell by 22,000 (-1.3%), owing mostly to decreases in Ontario and British Columbia.1
How Does a Labour Force Go Missing?
With the days of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit firmly in the rearview mirror, the notion that workers are choosing to remain unemployed to receive benefits seems less feasible. Similarly, many employers have opted to pay higher salaries, dispelling talk of a “wage shortage”. So, where are Canada’s missing workers? And will they ever return to the workforce?
“The first thing to consider is what kind of roles and which industries are seeing the greatest shortage; a trend becomes clear pretty quickly” says Henry Goldbeck, President of Goldbeck Recruitment.3 “This shortage is far less obvious at mid and high ranking positions.”
Indeed, there are great levels of interest in senior positions; the pandemic has created great opportunity for ambitious career moves. But at lower levels, people seem less interested in returning to work.
“There’s lots of discussion around how the pandemic has made people reconsider their values,” says Goldbeck. “Senior leadership, for example, may insist on working from home three days per week, permanently. But that kind of re-evaluation is also happening in these lower positions too—the difference is that blue collar workers tend to have fewer options.”3
So despite wage increases, greater job security, and recent unionization efforts, many retail employees, manual labourers, and food service workers have yet to be lured back to unforgiving and often unpleasant workplaces.4
“We’ve just been through a pandemic. We know that people earning a lower income were disproportionately likely to be affected personally by the virus—from losing loved ones, to being forced to work despite unsafe working conditions, and even getting sick themselves,” says Goldbeck. “These ‘missing’ workers may still be recovering, emotionally and physically, from this very traumatic period.”3
But this split—high employment in professional roles with low employment in blue collar jobs—may evince a view of the future of labour: a split where professional workers are employed, while “unskilled” workers are replaced by automation and other technology.
“This is the future we always predicted—robots doing minimum wage jobs,” says Goldbeck. “Only instead, we imagined technology stealing people’s jobs, not people refusing to work.”
The Logistics Industry Needs More Curiosity
In the logistics industry, meanwhile, a dramatic skills shift is taking place. In a year stacked with black swan after black swan, it’s becoming clear that supply chain professionals may need to update their toolkits.
“This year has proven the value of case study-based education,” says William McKinnon, President of Canadian Alliance Terminals. “The textbook knowledge is important, yes, but the complexities and the volatility of the supply chain today requires individuals to be more conversant in lateral thinking.”5
“In candidates, we look for this kind of mental agility to be accompanied by both patience and inquisitiveness,” reflects Goldbeck. “Because every day, the supply chain faces a new challenge; every day, those problems need new solutions.”
“A contact of mine recently emphasized the importance of patience to his team,” said McKinnon. “He’s been in the drayage business for 25 years and they’ve never experienced anything like the congestion, the backlogs, and the customer demands that they have this year.”5
“You can’t take these hurdles personally,” says McKinnon. “Being able to cultivate patience and problem solving is quite significant.”5
Problem solving comes more naturally to some than others. That’s why curiosity has become one of the traits McKinnon seeks out in employees.
“I try to find people that are inquisitive,” says McKinnon. “These are the people who challenge the status quo by asking questions about things we typically would take for granted. They challenge our assumptions.”5
This kind of dynamic interaction with industry norms is an ongoing commitment. As supply chain professionals come to face new challenges, like managing and maintaining industry-changing technology, they’ll need to be armed with a willingness to learn—for the entirety of their careers.
“If we approach business in this way,” says McKinnon, “it’s a very healthy platform for us to become a faster learning organization.”5