The Labour Market in Atlantic Canada

The rate of economic growth in Atlantic Canada from 2019 to 2040 is projected to be approximately 0.8%[1]. That’s a full percentage point lower than the national economic growth rate of 1.8%. The reason this growth rate stands lower than the national average is that the region’s aging population has affected its long-term economic prospects.
Currently, the region is producing goods at the maximum possible level given the capacity of existing plants and available workers. To grow its economy, the Atlantic region will require investments in plant infrastructure and skills development, along with an expanded workforce.

Atlantic Canada’s workforce has declined in recent years.

As Atlantic Canada’s population ages and baby boomers retire, the region’s labour force shrinks. Between 2012 and 2018, the Atlantic region’s labour force declined by 31,000 people (or 2.4%), while the rest of Canada saw steady increases. Over the next decade, it’s projected[1] that another 229,000 people could retire.

Young workers are moving.

Another factor that’s contributing to Atlantic Canada’s aging and shrinking labour force is that younger workers are moving to other provinces. In fact, the region has seen net losses to other provinces in almost every year of the last decade, with Newfoundland and Labrador experiencing the greatest losses since 2012[2].

Unemployment is improving—but not everywhere.

Despite the unemployment rate falling to its lowest level since 1976, the region still has higher rates than the national average. In 2018, the unemployment rate ranged from 7.5% in Nova Scotia to 13.8% in Newfoundland and Labrador, compared to 5.8% nationally. Part of this can be attributed to the large gap between unemployment rates in rural and urban areas.

The unemployment rate in metropolitan areas like Halifax, Moncton, and Saint John is comparable to other Eastern Canadian cities like Toronto and Montreal. In fact, St. John’s is the only metropolitan area where the unemployment rate is significantly higher (likely due to downturns in construction associated with the oil and gas sector).

In 2018, the unemployment rate in urban areas of Atlantic Canada averaged 7.5%, only 1.7 percentage points higher than the national average. Although the unemployment rate in rural areas was over 10%, this higher rate is the result of marked differences between rural regions, in particular a handful of communities with exceptionally high unemployment rates. This is driven mainly by four of the top five regions in Canada with the highest rate of temporary jobs as a share of total jobs being in Atlantic Canada.

A recent study[3] found that, for workers between the ages of 25 and 54 (prime-aged workers), the difference in employment rates between all provinces is shrinking, with the exception of Newfoundland and Labrador.

The study also looked at the relationship between employment rate and population growth and found a strong correlation, indicating that people are moving for employment opportunities.

Are jobs available?

Looking at job vacancies can let us know our labour market needs. There is typically a discrepancy between the unemployment rate and the job vacancy rate: the higher the unemployment rate, the easier it is to fill jobs (provided the required skills are available), thereby lowering the job vacancy rate.

Compared to the rest of Canada, all Atlantic provinces have greater discrepancies between their job vacancy rates and their unemployment rates, with the discrepancy in Newfoundland and Labrador being the highest.

However, a recent analysis by APEC found that job vacancy rates have increased across Canada over the last two years, with particularly strong increases in the three Maritime provinces (when compared to Newfoundland and Labrador). Over half of vacancies require less than two years experience, nearly half of all vacancies are in sales and service, construction trades, or transportation, and the fastest growing vacancies are in health care-related jobs.

Taking a deeper look at the unemployment to job vacancy ratio can provide a better sense of labour supply and demand. A tighter labour market means there are fewer unemployed people available for each job vacancy, while a slack labour market means there are many unemployed people and too few job vacancies.

This ratio varies widely among regions within the Atlantic provinces. In regions that contain larger cities, the ratio is smaller, meaning a tighter market. One exception is the Avalon Peninsula, as it includes St. John’s, which is experiencing a softening economy and job losses.

The regions with the highest ratios (meaning the slackest markets) are among the oldest populations in Atlantic Canada, with a significant portion of their population over 55 years old. Additionally, in regions with the highest unemployment, jobs are more likely to be temporary. In fact, most of the regions with the slackest markets also have the highest rate of temporary/seasonal jobs in Canada.

These ratios also vary by occupation. For example, the ratio is very low in health occupations and sales and service occupations, while remaining high in certain goods-producing occupations.

What skills are needed?

According to recent projections[4] covering 2018-2020, 92% of jobs becoming available will be tied to retirements and death, while 8% will be the result of employment growth. These numbers vary from province to province.

Between 2018-2020, a total of 84,725 workers will be needed in Atlantic Canada in the following five categories:

Technical workers are in the highest demand, driven both by attrition and growth in construction and repair/maintenance-related activities. These jobs include industrial electricians, electrical mechanics, contractors and supervisors, heavy equipment operators, and mechanics.

Though fewer management workers are needed, this category will be the most affected by retirements. Many of these positions will be filled by workers in technical and professional categories, including supervisors and team leads, increasing the need in those categories beyond the numbers projected in these forecasts.

Some trends have been observed in all Atlantic provinces:

In addition to these broad trends, some opportunities vary by province:

Prince Edward Island (8,070 job openings)
The highest number of job openings on PEI are expected in technical (2,640 openings) and intermediate (2,305 openings) occupations. The construction and retail sectors will drive much of this need.

For example, investment in construction projects is expected to remain strong over the forecast period, supporting job creation in the industry (particularly for truck drivers, heavy equipment operators, and carpenters).

Job growth is also expected in food service occupations and retail, due to high turnover and attrition. A healthy economic outlook, along with continued population growth, is expected to add more jobs for retail salespersons and supervisors, cooks, and food counter attendants.

Nova Scotia (34,615 openings)
The highest number of job openings in Nova Scotia are expected in technical (11,660 openings) and professional (8,990 openings) occupations.

Technical occupations with good employment outlooks include retail sales supervisors, cooks, early childhood educators and assistants, accounting technicians, licensed practical nurses, and user support technicians.

Professional occupations with good employment outlooks include registered nurses, physicians, financial auditors, and computer programmers.

Managers will be needed in the areas of health and finance, computers and information systems, and engineering.

Some smaller occupation categories—such as those related to oceans and ICT—will see some of the strongest employment growth.

New Brunswick (28,795 openings)
In New Brunswick, a growing number of job openings require a higher skill set, with 9,615 opportunities in technical occupations and 5,310 opportunities in professional occupations.

Approximately 1,125 opportunities are expected for registered nurses, psychiatric nurses, nurses’ aides, orderlies, and patient service associates.

Attrition will be the primary driver behind the 5,000 projected opportunities in management occupations including financial managers, human resources managers, and purchasing managers.

Employment growth will drive close to a third of the 1,720 projected openings in the natural and applied sciences fields, including jobs in civil and mechanical engineering, web design, and IT analysis.

Newfoundland and Labrador (13,245 openings)
Overall, Newfoundland and Labrador is projecting an employment decline of 1.2% during the forecast period.

The highest number of job openings will be in technical occupations (4,155 openings), followed by a combined 8,150 openings in management, intermediate, and professional occupations.

These opportunities are being driven by needs in the areas of health care, social services, and counselling, as well as projected improvements in the oil and gas sector and increases in mining activities.

Although construction activity is projected to slow down, jobs related to transportation or repair and maintenance have better prospects.

In the long term, several large aquaculture developments in the province will be associated with a significant number of job opportunities.

Are there barriers preventing people from work?

Part of the solution for meeting labour needs in the Atlantic region is removing barriers that keep certain groups under-represented.

Right now, 57.8% of women in Atlantic Canada participate in the workforce, compared to 61.3% nationally.

Analysts noted that employment rates for women between the ages of 25 and 54 in Québec improved dramatically between the 1980s and 2018, likely in relation to more proactive daycare policies.

Additionally, as of 2016, 18.4% of indigenous peoples in Atlantic Canada are unemployed, compared to the 15.2% national average.

Immigrants can play a key role in meeting labour needs, and also contribute to the economy in a number of ways, such as advancing knowledge and growing innovation. Immigrants are credited with increasing the diversity of ideas and partnerships with international firms, particularly in ICT and other technology-oriented sectors.

Ontario, Canada’s highest-performing province in the ICT sector, has a labour force comprised of 57% immigrants, compared to 37% nationally. Atlantic Canada, however, has an ICT labour force with less than 1% represented by immigrants. ICT-related skills are needed to bolster the region’s technology industries, such as cyber security, ocean technology, and aerospace and defence. In addition, these skills are needed for more traditional sectors as they shift to compete in an increasingly digital world.

An additional benefit of introducing immigrants to the labour force is improved trade relations with their countries of origin. A 1% increase in the number of immigrants to Canada would increase the value of imports by 0.21% and the value of exports by 0.11%[5] .

Programs like the Global Talent Stream and the Atlantic Growth Strategy (AGS) Atlantic Immigration Pilot Program (AIPP) are working to help address skilled labour needs in the region. The AGS is also piloting a program aimed at matching international graduates with employers and job opportunities in the region.

How can unemployment and job vacancies co-exist?

A recent CBC article[6] cautioned that focusing on overall, national numbers can hide differences in the labour market that are prevailing either by geography or age.
The article pointed out that:

Why are some people not looking for work?

The top two reasons identified in the Maritime provinces were “own illness or disability” (23%) and “going to school” (19%).

In Newfoundland and Labrador, however, the top answer was “Believes no work available (in area or suited to skills)” (21%), followed by “going to school” (19%)[7] .

These individuals are not part of the regional labour force and do not contribute to Atlantic Canada’s unemployment rate.

Unemployment in seasonal industries

Employment seasonality refers to the degree to which employment rises or falls throughout the year because of seasonal influences like climate or other institutional factors.

Over the past 20 years, seasonal fluctuations in the economy have decreased nationally. This is due to a number of factors, including the economy becoming more service-based (creating more year-round job opportunities) and technological advances that make it possible to do work year-round that was once seasonal (such as construction in the winter).

Despite a downward trend leading to significant declines, seasonal rates in Atlantic Canada remain well above average. Recent data also suggests the downward trend may have come to an end with slight increases in seasonality in each province between 2012 and 2015.

Prince Edward Island stands as the province with the highest rate of seasonality in Canada, followed by Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.


There can be a relationship between wage growth and the labour market. In a tight labour market, employers can have difficulties finding workers to fill positions, leading to higher wage increases.

Average weekly wages in Atlantic Canada remain below the national level. However, between 2007 and 2017, the average weekly wages in the private sector increased at a faster pace (2.5%) in Atlantic Canada compared to the national average (2.1%), decreasing the gap to 90% of the national average weekly wage.

But overall average wages by province can mask important differences within geographic areas. For example, the growth between 2007 and 2017 was largely driven by strong increases in Newfoundland and Labrador (particularly in the construction sector and seafood processing). In comparison, the three Maritime provinces had weekly wage growth on par with the national average.

Bringing workers to work and work to workers.

Over the last 20 years, more young people have been moving to seek out economic opportunities and prefer to move to opportunities within their home province, or commute or telework.

In some cases, companies are bringing the work to the workforce. For example, a financial centre in Dieppe, New Brunswick announced 440 high-skilled jobs in accounting, finance, and more, with an average annual salary of $65,000, in addition to 575 full-time call centre jobs.

Similarly, some Atlantic Canadian firms need to establish satellite offices in other locations to access skilled labour.


[1] Conference Board of Canada, Provincial outlook Long-term Economic Forecast, 2019.

[2] Atlantic Provinces Economic Council. January 2019 Report Card. Atlantic Canada’s Shrinking Labour Force.

[3]Amirault, D. and Rai, N. Bank of Canada. Canadian Labour market Dispersion: Minding the (Shrinking) Gap.

[4]These occupational forecasts are published by ESDC/Service Canada and are based on a projection model—referred to as the Regional Occupational Outlook for Canada (ROOC) model—that takes into account factors such as attrition and projected industry activity.

[5]Immigrants as Innovators (Conference Board of Canada, 2010).

[6]If there’s a labour shortage, how come some people are still out of work? CBC article, Brandie Weikle – CBC News. Posted: Feb 18, 2019 4:00 AM ET.

[7]Statistics Canada. Reason for not looking for work by province and economic region, 2018.

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