Rural Ontario employment nearly back to pre-pandemic levels: Rural Ontario Institute

Rural Employment

Employment numbers in rural Ontario are almost back to pre-pandemic levels, new data show.

From July to August, rural employment increased by 1.5 percent, according to findings from the Rural Ontario Institute (ROI). Comparing August’s levels to the same month last year, employment is down only 0.6 percent in the province’s rural areas.

“The COVID employment gap in the rural context has closed really quite extraordinarily and quite rapidly,” said Norman Ragetlie, the institute’s executive director. “The bounce back is almost complete.”

Urban centres saw a 2.1 percent increase in employment from July to August.

Still, big cities are down 6.3 percent when compared to last August.

The ROI is a Guelph-based think-tank that advocates for rural Ontario and offers programs to develop the region’s leaders.

The institute’s summary pulls data from Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey. In the latest report for August, rural and small towns refer to places with a population of 10,000 or less.

Ontario’s rural areas are also performing much better than other provinces, with rural employment down 20.5 percent in Alberta and 13.3 percent in Quebec.

Nationally in August, rural employment dropped 7.7 percent compared to the same month last year.

“Some of the economic activity in other regions of Canada are much more resource-dependent than Ontario’s rural economy, which is more diverse,” Ragetlie explained.

He said rural communities and small towns, like those around Southwestern Ontario, generally have more diversified economies that often combine manufacturing, agriculture, tourism and construction, allowing some industries to remain healthy to offset those that dipped.

“If there’s something to learn from this, it’s that diversified economies are more robust,” Ragetlie said.

One booming rural sector is insurance, finance, real estate and leasing, which is up 45 percent from August of last year.

But other key sectors in Ontario’s rural workforce are still hurting.

Forestry, fishing, mining, oil and gas is down 79 percent; utilities are down 35 percent; information, recreation and culture are down 22 percent; public administration is down 12 percent, and transportation and warehousing are down 12 percent.

Another recent ROI report shows 5,800 businesses in rural Ontario, or 12 percent, closed between January and April this year.

This report pulls experimental data from Statistics Canada that looks at payroll information. Any business that had at least one employee on a payroll, then had none, is considered a closing in the data.

It does not mean the closings are permanent.

“We really do have to wait to see how many of those businesses come out of it,” Ragetlie said. “We may not see the same kind of bounce back in the business closure data as we see in the employment data.”

The sectors with the largest declines in active businesses were accommodation and food dropping 21 percent, person services down 19 percent, transportation and warehousing down 17 percent, retail trade down 15 percent and arts, entertainment and recreation down 15 percent.

However, Ragetlie said there will always be regional variances to the figures, with some towns performing better than others.

For example, some Grand Bend retailers have reported banner years, while at least three Port Stanley restaurants have closed amid the pandemic.

Meanwhile, urban centres saw 13 percent of businesses close in the same period.

Ragetlie said business closings could be more profoundly felt in small towns — mom and pop shops have been particularly hard-hit — where there are fewer alternatives.

“I think it would have a deeper impact,” he said. “A lot of that specialized, local retail was serving local markets and had a niche. If that niche is no longer being served, it will be felt more strongly.”

By: Max Martin, London Free Press, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter