(Or we’re trying to)

Where did all the workers go?

If only I had a loonie for every time I heard that question in the months since the end of the pandemic.

As employers scramble, or perhaps more accurately pull their hair out, over vacant jobs, strong demand and no one to actually do the work, it is little wonder they are frustrated these days. And StatsCan seems to amplify that sense when it posts surveys showing “record-setting job vacancies” now sitting north of one million positions. The logical response on the part of employers is to ask: where have all the workers gone? We were good, then came COVID and now we’re not good.

The answer is out there, and it might surprise you. And it isn’t CERB, or an apparent lost generation of 20-somethings cooped up in a dark basement playing video games, incapable or unwilling to secure gainful employment. Nope. Turns out, all those lost workers retired.

Demographics expert Eddie Lemoine was in Saskatchewan not long ago speaking to CEO groups in the major cities and he simply walked through the numbers showing Boomers are a significant part of the problem.

Actually, the answer is out there, and it might surprise you… Turns out, all those lost workers retired.

People in that age group were turning 65 at a rate of 8,500 a week or so through the pandemic; that meant somewhere between 500,000 and 800,000 (depending on your view of when the pandemic ended) reached the birthday usually associated with retirement.

Then there is the immigration story.

Lemoine notes that while Ottawa’s claim that we set a record with more than 400,000 new immigrants last year was “technically” correct, more than half of those were already here … only their status from temporary to permanent changed. So cut that figure in half.

Further, a large percentage of the immigrants who were here on temporary visas, such as student authorizations, actually returned to their homelands to ride out the pandemic with their families.

That’s another three or four hundred thousand taking us remarkably close to the one million posted jobs currently going unfilled in this country.

All of this brings us to policy responses. At the provincial level, we’ve seen the premier advance the notion of a “nation in a nation” as he demands the feds hand over more control over immigration.

The Fraser Institute think tank has advanced the idea that pension rules need to be changed to encourage older workers to stay in the workforce longer, even part-time, to take up some of the slack. They argue OAS claw-backs should be reduced or eliminated so older workers can take employment without being penalized. After all, why would anyone work for free?

COVID changed a lot of things, the labour market among them. But solving the issues at hand starts with getting a proper handle on what the issue actually is, and we might be moving that way. But the journey isn’t necessarily a short one.