Labour shortage : seeking solutions

Far from easing the labour shortage, the pandemic seems to have exacerbated a shortfall of employees in certain sectors such as health and education. How can this be explained and what are the solutions? An overview.

By the end of 2021, Québec had 238,050 vacant positions for 265,300 unemployed people. A historic high. “While the labour market sustained a huge shock in April 2020, it already seems to have recovered all its losses. Two years later, the indicators are green,” explains the deputy director of the Institut du Québec, Emna Braham. At 4.6% in December 2021, the unemployment rate prior to the emergence of the Omicron wave was even lower than it was before the start of the pandemic, according to the Institut de la statistique du Québec.

As a result, positions are increasingly difficult to fill.  The labour scarcity observed prior to the crisis will not be solved for some time, notes the analyst. “All the evidence suggests that it will persist mainly because of population aging. We witnessed this dynamic prior to the pandemic and it continues.” Consequently, it will not be until 2030 before a balance is restored between the number of persons retiring and those who are entering the labour market, she adds. In the meantime, the gap widens every year.

“All the evidence suggests that [the labour scarcity] will persist mainly because of population aging. We witnessed this dynamic prior to the pandemic and it continues.”
– Emna Braham, deputy director of the Institut du Québec

Healthcare at the forefront

Aging not only has an impact on the active population, but also on the demand for services, particularly in healthcare. Thus, with more than 37,000 positions to be filled in 2021, according to the Institut de la statistique du Québec, the health and social services sector is among the areas most affected by the labour shortage, notes Emna Braham. The number of vacant positions exploded between 2019 and 2021, with an increase of 117%, according to Statistics Canada.

“The labour shortage can also be explained by difficult working conditions, which is even more true during the pandemic,” explains Diane-Gabrielle Tremblay, a professor specializing in human resource management at Université TÉLUQ. For example, more than 4,000 nurses left the public network since the start of the public health crisis in 2020, or 43% more than in 2019, based on data compiled by La Presse. Moreover, the total number of jobs in the field of health and social services slightly dropped between 2019 and 2021, whereas demand sharply increased, observes Emna Braham.

Teachers under pressure

In the field of education, the number of vacant positions also increased, although less markedly, states Emna Braham. The number of vacancies reached 5,135 in 2021, according to Statistics Canada. However, she points out that the figure does not tell the whole story. “In some sectors, such as teaching, employers cannot allow a position to remain unfilled. They have to find other solutions and this need is not reflected in the numbers.”

Thus, it is hard to measure the real scale of the shortage when schools make wide use of substitute teachers to meet their needs. Indeed, while the number of legally qualified teachers remained rather stable between 2013 and 2018, those who were not qualified grew from 15,000 to 30,000, explains Geneviève Sirois, professor in school administration at Université TÉLUQ, who is currently conducting research on the shortage in the field of education as well as solutions.

The pandemic has not spared the field of education either, making teachers’ workloads heavier and expediting retirement for many, according to Geneviève Sirois. “The problem is that neither the Ministère nor the school service centres are able to provide accurate figures to account for the labour shortage, workforce needs in the coming years, or retirements. But it is something we are hearing a lot about. Many people have decided to retire sooner because of the current conditions.”

In addition, the shortage is amplified by COVID-19-related absences, making working conditions more difficult, she notes. “Currently, in many school service centres, a four-day workweek or a half-day sabbatical can no longer be requested. There are practically no more centres that offer this.  Even having access to one day of training becomes difficult when there is no one to replace you.” Like nurses, some are even forced to work in a substitute capacity.

Enticement operation

Québec estimates that there is currently a shortfall of 4,300 nurses in the healthcare network. For its part, the Ministère de l’Éducation hopes to hire 8,000 people (teachers, special education specialists and childcare educators) in the network over the next five years. To this end, the government launched a variety of measures including an action plan called Opération main-d’œuvre with a total budget of $3.9 billion.

“We already have 30,000 people in the networks who are only asking to be provided with the tools and the means that will foster their occupational integration.”
– Geneviève Sirois, professor in school administration at Université TELUQ

The goal is to attract, train and requalify 170,000 employees in a number of targeted sectors, including 60,000 the fields of health and social services, education and educational childcare services. Among the solutions advocated by the state are international recruitment, accelerated or online training and making use of retired employees. In addition, there is a grant program for students enrolled in targeted college and university programs in education, childcare and healthcare.

In Geneviève Sirois’s opinion, the solution will come from the development of targeted training programs to qualify all teachers who are not currently qualified. “We already have 30,000 people in the networks who are only asking to be provided with the tools and the means that will foster their occupational integration,” she says. She also recommends enhancing the status of the profession, which requires an improvement of working conditions.

Call on senior workers

Moreover, it’s in the interest of employers to encourage older employees to work, as Québec lags behind in this area, says Diane Gabrielle-Tremblay. In fact, in Québec, only 36% of persons aged 60 to 69 years are working. The percentage climbs to 43% in Ontario and 63% in Iceland, according to the data from a study published by HEC Montréal’s Centre for Productivity and Prosperity in 2019.

For this to happen, the specialist believes that schedules must be redefined.  “Many retired persons would remain employed if they were offered a work schedule better suited to their needs. Currently, however, there is not much flexibility or acknowledgment of their needs.” This could be a complex endeavour in certain settings, such as in hospitals. “But as it stands, it is complicated to manage schedules spread over 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” she adds. In some settings, a number of tools, particularly IT tools, are being tested to customize work schedules based on staffing.

Improve working conditions

While we must take action on recruitment, it is also important to focus on retaining employees, believes Geneviève Sirois. “We don’t have the exact figures, but some of the data suggests that up to 50% of people holding degrees in teaching leave the profession after five years.” Measures such as mentoring or implementing a professional integration program could help to reduce the number of hasty departures.” Likewise, the filling of positions needs to be reviewed, she says, adding that 48% of teachers do not have permanent status.

We also need to rethink work organization, says Diane-Gabrielle Tremblay. The researcher, who has studied the attraction and retention of nursing staff, thinks that problems with balancing work and family life and a lack of autonomy, along with lean management,1 are among the main reasons these professionals leave the profession.

“The labour shortage can also be explained by difficult working conditions, which is even more true with the pandemic.”
– Diane-Gabrielle Tremblay, a professor specializing in human resource management at Université TÉLUQ

Indeed, hospitals have focused on Japanese work methods, in which everything is timed, which nurses criticize, she explains. “But an important aspect of lean management has been forgotten. It involves bringing employees together to seek solutions. It is this aspect that explains why the Japanese have been such successful innovators.”

In the same vein, why not draw inspiration from the Swedish approach, which encourages collaboration, teamwork, skills building and versatility to improve the allocation of work? “In other provinces, there are teacher assistants who take care of other duties, such as supervision. This allows teachers time for lesson planning or marking,” points out Geneviève Sirois.

In short, there is no one solution for tackling the labour shortage. Instead, we need to implement a series of actions that will enable us to attract talent but also to retain it by focusing on autonomy and recognition, according to Diane-Gabrielle Tremblay. This is a discussion to be held with all employees.

1 Lean management is a management and work organization method that aims to improve the performance of a business and the quality and profitability of its production. The CSQ strongly criticizes this type of management, particularly in health and social services and in education.

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