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Younger workers were hit harder in the recession, and their recovery in the labour market has been slower to take root.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

If Canada is really to tackle a looming skills and labour shortage in the jobs market, the country will have to boost participation among several key demographic groups, including people with disabilities and the aboriginal population.

An aging population will require employers, schools and governments to ramp up efforts to recruit and retain people for the work force, which may mean fresh thinking on how to structure jobs, train people and design the workplace, consultant Rick Miner told a labour force conference on Monday.

A mismatch in the labour market between the skills people have and those employers want has become a heated topic of debate, and last week the federal government made skills and training for the jobs market a central part of its budget. Many employers say they can't find suitable electricians, engineers and accountants – and are going outside the country to recruit – even as 1.3 million Canadians are out of work. By some estimates, almost a quarter of recent grads are underemployed or unemployed.

It's a paradox that could only become more acute over time amid rapidly shifting job-skill requirements.

"The shortage [right now] is not huge, given the size of our population. But as we go out in time, as the demographics take hold, that shortage grows and grows and grows, and that's where we'll have to do something about it," said Mr. Miner.

There are many variables in predicting future labour market needs that make solid projections tricky – for example, it's tough to gauge whether the current shift towards delaying retirement is permanent or temporary, or how external demand will influence hiring.

But demographics suggest challenges ahead. Right now, nearly half the population falls outside the typical working age, (making a so-called "dependency ratio" of 44 per cent). By 2036, Mr. Miner projects that will swell to two-thirds of the population, or 65 per cent, as baby boomers age and the number of young people shrinks, which has implications for productivity, tax revenues and consumption. "That's absolutely frightening," said Mr. Miner, who is also past president of Seneca College in Toronto.

Six groups are still under-represented in the labour force, and their involvement will have to grow if Canada is to sustain a healthy supply of labour. They are:


The employment rate among those born in Canada was 83.2 per cent last year – a far cry from 66 per cent among very recent immigrants. It takes a full decade for immigrants' participation rates to reach the same level as Canada-born people, and "that's a lot of wasted human resources."

Aboriginal people

The aboriginal population is far less likely to participate in the labour market than the non-aboriginal population, regardless of age group. Among the core-aged adults, for example, the difference is about 12 percentage points. Much of this stems from educational attainment, and improved access to education, and better high-school completion rates will be needed to boost employment levels.

People with disabilities

Regardless of disability, from hearing, seeing and mobility to developmental or psychological challenges, the participation rate is sharply lower than among those without disabilities. For example, half of people who are blind or have vision loss participate in the labour market compared with more than three quarters among the rest of the population. Yet "this is a huge opportunity... businesses are finding that these individuals tend to be very good employees. They're far more loyal and productive than businesses had recognized."


Men and women have similar attachments to the labour force when they begin their careers – but the gap starts to widen once people hit their twenties. Parental leaves and early childhood education has improved, but more could be done. Older women are rejoining or staying in the work force in much greater numbers than in prior decades, but the gap still persists.

Younger workers

Younger workers were hit harder in the recession, and their recovery in the labour market has been slower to take root. Some solutions to get people into the labour market more efficiently could be to introduce more joint college-and-university programs, reinstate three-year bachelor of arts degrees and ensure high schools work more closely with post-secondary schools to give better guidance on the jobs market.

Older workers

More than four in 10 older workers, in one U.S. study, want to cycle between work and leisure in retirement – doing contracts, short-term projects or seasonal work. Employers should adapt policies to allow for phased-out retirement and flexible hours, adjusting to the new reality that people want to work longer.