National employment gains slow, while provincial trends continue to vary


Labour Market Corner Blog

Construction employment recorded another gain in November – but has a long way to go before it returns to pre-pandemic levels.

Statistics Canada’s latest Labour Force Survey (LFS), conducted during the week of November 8th to 14th, shows a gain of 0.3% in industry employment for the month. Employment rose by 4,300 workers from 1,438,000 in October to 1,442,000 in November. Although this latest figure marks a significant improvement over employment levels at the trough of the pandemic (1,119,000 in April 2020), it remains about 4.6% lower than industry employment in November 2019.

The industry labour force, meanwhile, added 7,300 workers to grow to 1,549,100 in November 2020. That represented an increase of 0.5% over the 1,541,800 workers in the labour force in October. Year-over-year, however, the national labour force is down 3.7% (-60,100 workers) from the 1,609,200 recorded in November of 2019.

At the pandemic’s worst, the widespread economic shutdown had directly affected millions of Canadian workers, as many lost their jobs or were otherwise temporarily displaced by the pandemic. By November, however, that figure had decreased substantially.

Graph: Construction industry labour force, employment and unemployment rate (%), Canada

Provincial trends vary

Ontario’s construction industry was one of the few in the country to report labour force gains in November. Indeed, the increase of 23,300 workers in the province was a gain of 4.1% over October’s total, and was by far the most significant increase in the country. British Columbia followed with a gain of 4,800, while Nova Scotia (900) and Prince Edward Island (100) saw only modest increases.

Conversely, construction labour forces in Quebec and Alberta were hit hardest. Quebec shed 8,200 workers, or about 2.7% of its provincial industry labour force, while Alberta dropped 7,800 workers, or 3.0%. Also recording significant proportional losses were labour forces in New Brunswick (-6.7%) and Manitoba (-4.5%).

The labour force is down in every province from 2019 levels. Those provinces with the largest losses include British Columbia (-10.3%), Prince Edward Island (-9%), Saskatchewan (-7.9%), and Newfoundland and Labrador (-7.8%). These declines were mirrored in the employment numbers, with British Columbia’s levels down 12.7%, Saskatchewan down 9.8%, Newfoundland and Labrador down 8.8%, and New Brunswick down 8.3%. The declines in most other provinces were less than 5%. Ontario came close to neutral at a decline of just 1.1%.

Nationally, the unemployment rate dropped 0.1 percentage point to 8% in November. Construction’s unemployment rate rose from 6.8% in October to 6.9% in November and remains 0.9 percentage points above its November 2019 level.

Provincially, the construction unemployment rate in November was highest in Newfoundland and Labrador and New Brunswick at 16.9% and 16.8% respectively, and lowest in Ontario and Nova Scotia at 5.3% and 5.4% respectively.

British Columbia’s rates continue to surprise, as employment has taken longer than expected to return to pre-COVID levels. The B.C. unemployment rate in November 2020 was up 2.4% from the 4.8% recorded in 2019, and little changed from October’s numbers – down just 0.2%.

Residential sector driving growth

Construction labour-force demand has been driven by the residential sector, as it has for much of the economic recovery period.

Statistics Canada’s latest report on building construction investment, for October 2020, suggests that trend will only continue. The data showed an increase of 0.7% in residential construction investment for the month – the sixth month in a row in which housing investment has increased. Demand was especially strongest in single-detached construction, where investment rose by 3.7% to $5.5 billion. Every province except for Prince Edward Island reported gains, with Ontario (3.3%) and Saskatchewan (27.7%) leading the way.

Investment in single-family home construction was 7.7% higher in October than in February 2020, the last pre-pandemic month on record.

Investment in multi-unit construction, meanwhile, dropped by 2.1% in October – the first time in five months in which that total contracted. Seven provinces recorded declines, with Manitoba (-24.6%) and Alberta (-9.2%) reporting the largest drops. Ontario, Quebec, and Prince Edward Island were the only provinces to report gains.

Meanwhile, investment in non-residential construction remained weak. Totals there dropped by 3.2% in October, with commercial-sector investment recording the greatest losses at 4.7%. All provinces reported drops in non-residential investment, with Quebec recording the largest at 13.4%. Investments in industrial (-1.7%) and institutional (-0.8%) construction also fell nationally. In the former sector, eight provinces reported investment declines in October, while in the latter, decreases in Quebec (-1.9%) and Ontario (-1.2%) were offset by gains in British Columbia (+2.2%) and Newfoundland and Labrador (+6.6%).

Bob Collins
Bob Collins is BuildForce Canada's Chief Economist.