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Census finds fewer Canadians went to work in 2021


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New census data shows commute levels fell significantly in 2021 compared to 2016, and while some of that decline has recovered, public transit ridership has not fully recovered.

According to Statistics Canada, there were 2.8 million fewer travelers in 2021 than in 2016, as the pandemic prompted a shift to remote work.

The federal agency published a series of reports on Wednesday based on the 2021 census, two of them focused on commuting to work and the evolution of the labor force.

The data shows how COVID-19 has altered travel patterns and travel times, which have been reduced with fewer cars on the road. StatCan notes that while those times are now increasing again, commutes are still faster than they were in 2016.

Tricia Williams, director of research assessment and knowledge mobilization at the Future Skills Centre, said the pandemic is a “story of many stories”.

“When you look at a lot of working-class people, their lives may not have changed that much.” Williams said. “But there is a large part of the population that has been able to have more flexible remote workplaces.”

The new census report illustrates that dichotomy. The drop in car commuting in May 2021 occurred primarily among workers in professional service industries. Among other workers, the number of people traveling by car actually increased.

By May 2021, most transit routes were operating normally with public health measures in place, including mask mandates on trains and buses. One million Canadians took a bus or train to work in 2021, less than the 1.2 million who took public transport when the data was first collected in 1996 and nearly 50 percent less than in 2016.

Given the impact of the pandemic on remote work and commuting, StatCan also compared the 2021 data with updated numbers from this spring.

That showed that by May 2022, the number of people driving to work was back to 2016 levels. However, the number of people using public transport is still lower than it was six years ago, accounting for just 7.7 percent of all travelers.

Fewer people walked or biked to work in 2021 despite the fact that the federal government has spent millions on active transportation in recent years, including more than $400 million in 2021 alone.

Between 2016 and 2021, the number of people walking or bicycling dropped 26 percent to 811,000. StatCan says that’s partly due to the fact that there were fewer jobs in accommodation, food service and retail in 2021: Nearly a third of people who walked or biked to work in 2016 were in those sectors.

Williams said that coming out of the pandemic, workers are hesitant to abandon remote work.

“I think we will continue to see flexibility as the new normal in workplaces,” he said.

Statistics Canada has also released data on how the workforce is evolving as the Canadian population ages.

The labor force participation rate has fallen every census year since 2006 due to the aging of the baby boomer generation. As your growing health needs have combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, the pressures on the health care system have increased.

The number of healthcare workers increased by nearly 17 percent between 2016 and 2021, but the growing demand for healthcare workers during the pandemic has also highlighted the challenges of continued labor shortages.

“Given the importance of demographic changes to economic growth, there will be continued focus on the extent to which immigration can mitigate the effects of population aging,” the report said.

Between 2016 and 2021, 1.3 million immigrants were admitted to Canada, more than during any previous five-year period.

Experts have long expressed concern that immigrants are sometimes underutilized in the job market. However, the report found that the unemployment gap is narrowing for recent immigrants in the 25-64 working age group.

In 2021, there was a 3.2 percentage point gap in unemployment rates for recent immigrants compared to other workers in the same age range. That’s less than five percentage points in 2016.

During a press conference on Wednesday, Statistics Canada’s director general of Labor and Welfare Josee Begin highlighted factors that may have contributed to narrowing the gap, including previous work or educational experience in Canada.

“We know that recent immigrants are more educated than any previous generation of immigrants,” Begin said. “The fact that they have more education has an impact in terms of labor market outcomes.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on November 30, 2022.

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