By Lisa Taylor
“Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”
As children, we ask the same question over and over if we don’t get an answer we like. We get stuck on the question, repeating it, rather than processing new information or adjusting our expectations.
The classic example is the four-year-old in the backseat of the car asking, “Are we there yet?”
Today’s labour shortages are leading to a similar question: Where have all the workers gone?
Labour shortages have been predicted for decades. In The Talent Revolution: Longevity and the Future of Work, I explain that if we aren’t able to recognize and adjust to the highly predicted and predictable age-based changes taking place in our workforce, we won’t be able to adjust to other, more surprising shifts that come our way either.
Well, the pandemic certainly was a surprise. But remaining in a state of surprise now that we know how the pandemic impacted our labour markets isn’t wise.
We know where the workers have gone. Data and evidence give us answers. We just may not like them. Here are the four places where all the workers have gone.
1. Upskilling: Workers trained for roles in different sectors.
When the pandemic hit, many people in frontline service industries like hospitality, food services, and retail found themselves with free time on their hands. Micro-credentials and training programs for work that can be done remotely increased dramatically.
With new focus on work/life balance and finding meaningful work, Canadians made career moves into less stressful, more stable, higher paying, or more fulfilling work environments.
2. Retirement: Workers temporarily dropped out of the workforce due to burnout.
Compared to 2021, retirements jumped by 32% in 2022, and age was not the determining factor. Workers in key sectors that bore the brunt of the pandemic are tired. Mid- and late career professionals alike are opting out. To be sure, Canada has an ageing population. But what the labour market is experiencing isn’t the result of typical retirement choices.
This trend doesn’t have to be permanent. Many of those who took a retirement path during the pandemic will be looking for new ways to contribute and build Legacy Careers®. Career patterns are changing and older workers are not the problem. They are part of the solution.
3. Immigration: Workers are invisible.
The pandemic put incredible strain on Canada’s immigration system. The number of newcomers welcomed to Canada plummeted in 2020, but recovered in 2021 and 2022. The more pressing problem is that the pandemic made it much more difficult for immigrants to enter the labour force and find decent work.
As the Future Skills Centre explains, Canada isn’t “creating an employment environment where immigrants can use their skills and credentials to their fullest potential.” Ultimately, immigrants are invisible across many sect
ors and to many employers facing labour shortages.
4. Caregiving: Workers prioritized family needs.
More than 6.1 million employed Canadians, or 35% of Canada’s workforce, are caregivers for elderly or ill family members or friends. This trend predates the pandemic. But the pandemic caused everyone to rethink priorities, and normalized discussions about health and well-being in the workplace.
Many Canadians opted to take advantage of new or enhanced benefits that allow them to focus on taking care of loved ones, putting work on hold or transitioning into roles that can better accommodate caregiving.
It’s time to ask a different, better question
All in all, we know where the workers are.
They have taken ownership of their careers. They retrained to work in jobs that provide better employment. They are taking breaks and rebalancing work and life. They are on their way to Canada, and already here, often finding the welcome less than what was promised.
We know. We just don’t like the answer, because it implies that we have one very significant—system-wide—challenge: decent work and jobs.
The pandemic shocked the labour market, and it’s taking time to rebalance and find equilibrium. But continuing to ask where all the workers have gone misses the harder questions we need to face.
As Don Wright, former head of British Columbia’s public service, now a fellow with the Public Policy Forum, explained to the CBC: “I’m not sure that it’s so much a shortage of workers as a shortage of employers that are willing to pay the wages necessary to get people to work for them.”
Let’s stop asking, “Are we there yet?”
Instead, let’s start asking, “Where are we really going, and what’s everyone going to do when we get there?”