Jobless rate holds steady at 4.9% in March as employment surges, labour force grows


Ottawa-Gatineau’s jobless rate held steady at 4.9 per cent in March as a surge in employment was offset by a big jump in the number of people hunting for work.

The total number of employed residents rose to 777,500 last month, Statistics Canada reported Friday, up 10,000 from February thanks to a hiring binge in the civil service as well as growth in sectors such as manufacturing, retail and education.

At the same time, though, the region’s labour force – that is, the number of people actively looking for work – also grew to 817,900 residents. That’s an increase of 10,200 from the previous month, meaning big job gains were matched by an influx of workers looking to snap them up.

Meanwhile, the participation rate – which compares the size of the region’s labour force to the region’s population of working-age residents – continued its steady climb in 2021. It rose to 66.6 per cent last month, up from 65.9 per cent in February and 65.1 per cent in January as it recovers from a slide that saw the rate drop from nearly 70 per cent in the middle of last year.

Sectors that posted gains in Statistics Canada’s three-month rolling average included education, which recorded a net increase of 3,900 jobs, public administration (up a net 2,900), manufacturing (up 2,800) and retail (which gained 2,300).

Meanwhile, the accommodation and food services industry saw its job numbers decline by a net 1,200 positions last month despite the lifting of mask mandates and the ditching of the requirement for customers to show proof of vaccination at bars and restaurants. 

The health-care sector, meanwhile, shed a net 1,600 jobs, and the region’s all-important tech industry also saw its numbers drop by a net total of 1,200 positions.

Nationally, Statistics Canada says the unemployment rate in March fell to its lowest rate on record, falling to 5.3 per cent from 5.5 per cent a month earlier as the economy added 72,500 jobs.

That's the lowest jobless rate over comparable data going back to 1976, the agency said.

Statistics Canada also says the unemployment rate would have been 7.2 per cent had it included in calculations people who wanted a job but did not look for one, falling to pre-pandemic levels for the first time.

Driving the job gains in March were 24,500 women over age 55 finding work, and 35,300 core-aged men between 25 and 54 taking jobs, primarily part-time.

Provincially, the agency says gains were concentrated in Ontario and Quebec.

CIBC senior economist Andrew Grantham says there may be room for the unemployment rate to fall a little further, given areas of the country like oil-producing provinces were not at full employment before the pandemic struck.

Since hitting a peak of 1.5 million in April 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of people wanting work but not actively looking has fallen to 377,000, similar in size and proportion to the overall labour force witnessed in the month of March in each of the three years before 2020.

Statistics Canada says the reasons they weren't looking for work varied.

Just over one-quarter didn't look because of an illness or disability. A further one-fifth were part of a group waiting for a recall or reply from an employer, or who didn't think there was anything available.

Nearly an additional fifth pointed to personal and family responsibilities as the reason they paused their job search.

The agency says employers will have to tap into this group amid widespread labour shortages, though their ranks are falling.

The tightening of the labour market also meant average hourly wages were up to 3.4 per cent year-over-year in March, up from 3.1 per cent in February.

– With additional reporting from the Canadian Press