Thunder Bay’s aging population won’t keep up with demand for workers, new data suggests

New labour market projections suggest the aging population in Thunder Bay can’t sustain the existing economy, despite seeing early success in programs designed to boost the northwestern Ontario city’s workforce. 

One in five Thunder Bay district residents is already over 65, and according to the North Superior Workforce Planning Board, those aging out of jobs aren’t being replaced quickly enough, despite programs designed to replenish the workforce. 

“I haven’t seen enough results at the end of these programs that are bringing people in or training them,” says planning board executive director Madge Richardson. “The numbers are not keeping up to the demand and it’s still taking longer to respond to the demand.”

This local data fits in line with new census figures from Statistics Canada that suggest Canada’s working population is older than it has ever been. More than one in five working adults is now nearing retirement, according to Statistics Canada — a demographic shift that will create significant challenges for the workforce in the coming decade.

A report by the North Superior Workforce Planning Board that was released in 2015 projected the district would need 50,000 new migrants by 2041. That figure was based on a metric called the Demographic Dependency Ratio, used to measure the share of a population’s working age. The ideal rate is represented as 0.5, meaning a community has a ratio of two people in their working years to one of those either under 14 or over 65.

Without intervention, Richardson foresees the ratio could increase as high as 0.78 by 2035. As Thunder Bay’s population increased by nearly 1,000 in the past five years including 250 new immigrants, her 2022 projections suggest the ratio will peak at 0.67.

A data analysis from the North Superior Workforce Planning Board suggests Thunder Bay’s working population will be more sustainable than previously thought. (North Superior Workforce Planning Board)

She said her revised assessment proves the early effectiveness of programs launched since 2015, such as her Connector mentorship program, the Northern Policy Institute’s Matchmaker program, and the federal Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot project.

But it’s not nearly enough, she said. 

The number of local seniors is expected to climb from 31,500 in 2020 to around 40,0000 by 2030, then stay steady at that number through 2046. 

The new projections, shared by the Ontario Ministry of Finance, assume accelerated success of existing programs. Those programs, however, only have short-term funding. FedNor has committed to fund the Connector program through 2023 and the immigration pilot will expire in 2024. 

Richardson said she’s “cautiously optimistic,” but those writing short-term grants on the local level are already burning out as they work to meet the bureaucracy’s needs. She’s also still seeing some local resistance to increasing immigration, but said every willing worker is needed to meet this demographic challenge. 

“We have to ensure everyone who’s born here and lives here is competitive in the labour market and they get the skills so they can apply and they can work in this economy,” she said. “But we also want to welcome the people who want to move here, and we also have to ensure they have access to that training, to those opportunities. And it has to be both, otherwise we’ll never have the numbers to balance the equation.”

There are already labour shortages in some sectors. 

In 2021, the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM) identified 98 physician vacancies in northwestern Ontario, alone. The Thunder Bay Community Economic Development Corporation estimates the mining sector will need 2,000 new construction workers by 2024 and the sector’s total employment will double by 2040.

Seniors working overtime

Planning board data also suggests seniors are remaining in the workforce. Where only 0.8 per cent of employment centre clients were aged over 65 in 2016, that age group made up 2.2 per cent of those seeking work in 2021.

Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce president Charla Robinson said many member businesses are taking a longer and smoother succession road to the next generation as older employees remain on staff. Other seniors are joining the gig economy as a way of staying in touch and making their own schedules while making money.

WATCH | Canada’s tight labour market forces employeers to compete for workers: 

Employers compete for staff as demand for workers reaches new high

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A record-low unemployment rate forces employers to compete for workers as economists expect the labour market to get even tighter.

“I’ve noticed even people who are retiring from their main gig reappearing six to eight months later on a social type of job like driving to deliver flowers,” Robinson said. “That’s not because they don’t want to not be working, but because they want to do something different, where it’s more about the social connection.” 

Indigenous workers ‘untapped’ in Thunder Bay

Across Canada, Indigenous populations are roughly a median 10 years younger than non-Indigenous people, according to the latest Statistics Canada census data, and that difference is more pronounced in the Thunder Bay district. 

The Northern Policy Institute estimates the number of working-aged Indigenous people in the district will increase 38 per cent by 2041. 

As Anishinabek Employment & Training Services celebrates its 25th anniversary this month, it produced a survey of 1,000 clients that found 60 per cent of respondents were still experiencing challenges getting job interviews. That’s despite their educational achievements, training certificates, and the training centre’s eight-week wage subsidies designed to incentivize hiring Indigenous employees. 

John DeGiacomo, the training centre’s executive director, said local employers “aren’t necessarily walking the walk” when it comes to employing Indigenous people. 

 “It takes a while for individuals to understand that there’s a population that has been unfortunately stereotyped and we know there are a good number of those people who have high school, post-secondary and training programs under their belt,” DeGiacomo said. “It’s untapped.” 

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