The densely urbanized areas of southern Ontario — particularly the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and Ottawa — attract a disproportionate number of people with more advanced educational credentials. This matters because this demographic group provides numerous advantages to communities, such as greater financial resources and key skills needed for modern technologies. While this is real advantage for the large urban centres, it deepens the challenge for rural and northern communities to attract and retain young, educated workers, both domestic and those new to Canada. As a result, local businesses in these communities face growing labour shortages and a more transient workforce. This, coupled with predictions that populations in rural and northern communities are expected to stagnate or grow very slowly in the coming decades, paints a grim picture for growth in rural Ontario — or does it? Our experience with remote work in the COVID-19 era along with recent changes to immigration regulations may provide new opportunities for nonurban centres to attract talent and residents to their locales.
To better understand the current geographic distribution of workers with postsecondary credentials, we have created two interactive maps that allow for detailed comparisons of the educational attainment of community members. The data is from the 2016 Canadian Census, and includes individuals 15 and over who reported earnings in 2015. The units of geography displayed in the map below are census divisions. We have also created a second map using census subdivisions, which are smaller and provide even more detail.
There are two main trends evident in the map. The first is that the lowest percentages of workers without PSE credentials are in the GTA and the Ottawa area. These areas also have fewer workers with college and apprenticeship/trades credentials, and the highest percentages of workers with university credentials.
The second trend is that northern Ontario and rural areas in southern and eastern Ontario, have higher relative percentages of workers without PSE credentials. When compared with the GTA and Ottawa regions, they have roughly the opposite concentrations of workers with PSE credentials.
There are indications that these demographics could be shifting. While immigrants have overwhelmingly chosen to settle in the GTA in the past (80% in the last 20 years), there are multiple initiatives underway to encourage newcomers to settle in rural and northern area such as the Regional Immigration Pilot, Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot and the Community Immigrant Retention in Rural Ontario Program. These programs explicitly seek to attract highly educated and skilled immigrants to northern and rural areas of the province.
Over the last decade, immigration regulations have been revised in order to increase the number of international students who remain in Canada after graduating. This is particularly important to smaller communities with PSE institutions outside of the GTA, who regularly see highly skilled young people leave the community when they graduate. Immigration policies that encourage these grads to live and work in Canada will create more opportunities for these communities to keep them around.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an increasing dislocation between workplaces and places of residence. Eight times as many workers are working remotely now than before the pandemic, and it is expected that many will continue to have the option to do so after the pandemic is over. There are two notable consequences for rural and northern areas of the province.
The first is that postsecondary students from rural and northern areas will have more opportunities to return to or stay in their home community to build their careers, rather than move elsewhere. This may reverse the long-standing “brain-drain” from small and rural communities that has left many areas in need of skilled, educated workers. This trend may also be encouraged by the expanded availability of online programing from postsecondary institutions.
The second consequence is that in anticipation of increased, permanent remote work opportunities, residents of dense urban areas have sought out homes in smaller, more affordable communities and rural areas. These workers, many of whom are well-educated and have highly desired skills, are also contributing to dispersion of educated workers across Ontario. While they may not directly contribute to the labour force in these areas, they will contribute tax dollars and support for local businesses.
Time will tell if these trends and initiatives substantially impact where educated workers choose to live, which would subsequently alter the patterns shown in these maps. What is clear is that the future prosperity of rural and northern communities will be greatly influenced by their ability to attract and retain young, educated workers and immigrants.
Jeffrey Napierala is a senior researcher at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.