A Labour Day Snapshot of the B.C. Job Market

The first three quarters of 2020 has been an eventful period for the labour market and for B.C. workers.

The beginning of the year saw a near record-low unemployment rate, with employers in many sectors scrambling to find qualified people to fill vacant positions. Then COVID-19 arrived on the scene, throwing the global economy into a tailspin and prompting widespread business closures in Canada and other countries as governments sought to slow the spread of the virus. Canada and B.C. suddenly entered a recession, with the national unemployment rate soaring from 5.1% in late 2019 to more than 13% in April and May and millions of workers losing their jobs at least temporarily. Strikingly, in B.C. the “employment rate” fell from an average of 62.5% in 2019 to just 57.6% by July 2020 – an unprecedented drop.[1]

In contrast to previous recessions, women have been somewhat harder hit by the labour market pain caused by the COVID-19 shock. In the early stages of the lockdown, employment among females tumbled 17%, which was three percentage points more than for males. But with the re-opening of most consumer-facing businesses, women have seen stronger job gains. In August, employment for males remained 5.8% lower than in February while for women it was down 6%.

Fortunately, the tide of job losses that kept us glued to our computer screens in March and April proved to be relatively short-lived. By May, a solid labour market rebound had kicked into gear and it continued over the summer as the provincial government’s plan to reopen the economy was gradually implemented. But by the end of summer most of the re-opening related employment rebound was firmly in the rear-view mirror. Job growth in August slowed to just 15,000, down from 70,000 the month before. Employment in the province still sits 150,000 below February levels. In addition, thousands of recent high school and post-secondary graduates are seeking work in what remains a difficult economic and labour market environment.

In terms of the ongoing job market recovery, it’s clear the “low hanging fruit” has already been harvested as previously shuttered parts of the economy have now reopened. Looking ahead, the Business Council anticipates sluggish job creation over the balance of 2020 and into the early months of next year. This reflects, in part, an expectation that waves of layoffs lie ahead as more B.C. companies close their doors while others adjust to “new normal” conditions that involve less use of labour.

By year end, we project employment will still be down by 120,000 or so compared to where it stood back in February. Many tens of thousands of additional British Columbians will be employed but working fewer hours than they desire or used to work pre-COVID.

In short, there is still a lot of ground to cover to get back to a healthy labour market. To encourage a sustained employment revival and support job creation, the Business Council has developed our Stronger Tomorrow Starting Today Plan. The Plan includes several recommendations designed to re-employ British Columbians and establish the conditions that will prompt more companies and entrepreneurs to invest in the province.

[1] Not seasonally adjusted.