State of the Labour Market

January Labour Force Survey Preview: 2019 Progress Divided on Educational Lines


Prime-age employment rates rose among those with higher education

Despite ending on a soft note, 2019 on the whole was a good year for the Canadian labour market. One key metric, the prime-age employment rate — the share of 25 to 54-year-olds with a job — hit a new all-time high in September, and averaged 83.3% for the year, up from 82.7% in 2018. That said, progress for this age group wasn’t even across the board. One noticeable dividing line was across different levels of education: those who had completed post-secondary education saw improvement, while those with a high-school education or less didn’t.

The employment rate for prime-age Canadians with higher education rose a solid 0.7 percentage points in 2019. This reflected gains among both those with university degrees (up 0.4 points to 87.4%), and especially for those with other post-secondary certificates and diplomas (up 0.9 points to 87.0%). This latter group includes those with college and CEGEP diplomas, as well as trades certificates. 

Not only did an increasing share of Canadians with post-secondary degrees secure employment, but these gains appear concentrated in mid and well-paying positions. Job growth among prime-age workers in 2019, excluding the self-employed, was primarily driven by three occupation-groups: professional occupations in natural and applied sciences, administrative occupations, and professional occupations in businesses and finance, all of which tend to require some form of higher education.

On the flip side, prime-age workers who hadn’t completed post-secondary schooling didn’t take part in 2019’s job growth. The employment rate for this group ticked down 0.2 percentage points to 72.9%, remaining well below rates that prevailed before the 2008 financial crisis. Weighing on employment rates for this group included outright declines in the number of prime-age employees in office support occupations, distribution, tracking and scheduling coordination occupations, as well as, processing and manufacturing machine operators and related production workers. Job openings in all three groups are generally accessible to those without higher education.

Will 2020 be any different?

Recent industry-level momentum doesn’t bode well for the short-term prospects for employment rates of Canadians with less formal education. Employment in goods-producing industries like manufacturing and natural resources ticked down in the second half of 2019, while jobs in retail have been relatively flat in recent years. If there’s one silver lining, it’s that educational attainment of prime-age Canadians overall continues to rise at a steady pace: in 2019, just 27% hadn’t completed some form of post-secondary education, compared to 45% in 2000. One hope over the longer term is that the shift towards higher education leaves less competition among job seekers looking for work in roles that don’t require it.

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