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Research from the Institut du Québec shows that 156,900 Quebeckers returned to work last year as the province recouped all the jobs lost since the pandemic started. However, thousands of older, experienced workers as well as many people in their teens and 20s remain on the sidelines.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated Quebec’s labour crisis and profoundly changed the prospects for certain business sectors as some segments of the population retreat from the work force, a new study shows.

Research from the Institut du Québec shows that 156,900 Quebeckers returned to work last year as the province recouped all the jobs lost since the pandemic started. However, thousands of older, experienced workers as well as many people in their teens and 20s remain on the sidelines. And that could have significant implications for the province’s economic growth prospects in the months ahead.

“We’ve begun 2022 with one of the lowest unemployment rates in years and a record number of job vacancies,” said Mia Homsy, chief executive officer of the public-policy research group. “With a dwindling pool of potential workers and a considerable decrease in the labour market participation rate among those 55 and up, unless businesses, unions, schools and governments embrace a substantial shift in their approach to human resources management, the labour shortage will undoubtedly be the biggest obstacle to recovery.”

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Even before the pandemic, Quebec was experiencing a worker shortage that was forcing business owners to scale back operations and find ever-more creative and aggressive ways to attract employees. Almost nowhere else in Canada was the demand for employees as acute.

Two years of living with COVID-19 has aggravated the situation. The jobs are back but not all able workers are taking them, exposing another crack in a labour market already under pressure.

About 238,000 jobs in Quebec stood unfilled at the end of September, according to Statistics Canada’s quarterly payroll numbers. The number of Quebeckers neither working nor looking for a job has ballooned by 82,400, or 3.3 per cent, since the end of 2019. That’s a faster clip than Ontario’s 0.7 per cent and Canada’s 2.3 per cent over the same timeframe.

So who’s shunning work? It’s mostly experienced workers over 55, particularly women, the Institut’s findings show. About 25,700 women in Quebec in that age group have dropped out of the labour force since December, 2019.

“It’s worrying and we’re tracking this closely,” said Emna Braham, assistant director at the Institut. “We’re not sure yet whether their exit is permanent or not.”

Ms. Braham speculated that many of these women work in fields requiring regular physical contact with other people, such as medicine or teaching. She said they might be either apprehensive about returning for health reasons or hesitant to return to jobs where work conditions have deteriorated.

Nursing is likely one such profession. A growing number of Canadian nurses are retiring early, cutting back their hours or seeking alternative employment after 24 merciless months on the front lines of the pandemic. The Quebec government said last September that its health care system was short approximately 4,300 nurses and offered them bonuses as high as $18,000 to keep them from quitting.

Unlike in Ontario and Canada as a whole, employment rates for men aged 15 to 24 in Quebec have also yet to rebound to prepandemic levels, the Institut’s research shows. Ms. Homsy said it’s still unclear what’s driving this but said some have likely returned to full-time studies. This group traditionally has a higher labour participation rate overall in Quebec than in some other provinces such as Ontario.

Many Quebeckers appear to have turned their backs on sectors that have been upended by public-health restrictions, especially hospitality, food service and retail, according to the study. Companies in those industries could face persistent recruiting problems in the months to come that might require completely rethinking their business models, Ms. Homsy said.

Already, restaurants that are reopening after lockdowns are finding it difficult to find staff, not only in Quebec, but elsewhere. The Institut du Québec’s report predicts that in the future, there will simply be fewer restaurants and retailers for consumers to visit while businesses will shift to smaller but better-paid work forces.

Quebec’s labour picture isn’t entirely gloomy. The employment rate for immigrants in the province jumped strongly last year to nearly 83 per cent from 78.4 per cent the year before. Landed immigrants who have been here fewer than five years have had the most success in finding work, the report said.

And while reports from the United States suggest that the rate of workers quitting their jobs outright during the pandemic has been higher than normal, that’s not happening here. The labour force participation rate among Quebeckers aged 25 to 54 – the main pool of workers – has climbed over the past two years and it’s now at 90.4 per cent, higher than in Ontario and the rest of Canada, according to the Institut study.

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