Economic Insights
Barriers to Labour Mobility in Canada: Survey-based Evidence

by René Morissette
Social Analysis and Modelling Division, Statistics Canada

Release date: November 17, 2017 Correction date: (if required)

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In 2016, the majority of unemployed individuals indicated that they would not move to another province or elsewhere in their province for a job offer. The study finds that the main reasons are the desire to stay close to family and friends, or to take care of relatives, or that the spouse or children would not want to move. The study highlights that social considerations as well as economic ones matter in Canadians’ decisions to relocate for employment. The data come from the 2016 General Social Survey and pertain to unemployed individuals aged 15 to 64 who are not students.

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Introduction

Over the past five decades, the percentage of the working-age population migrating to other provinces has fallen from roughly 2% in the early 1970s to roughly 1% in 2015 (Chart 1). Part of the drop likely reflects the growing number of older workers in the labour force—such workers are less mobile than their younger counterparts. However, the aging of the workforce cannot fully account for this trend, since interprovincial mobility has also dropped within age–gender cells. For example, men aged 35 to 39 experienced a very similar drop in interprovincial mobility during the same period (Chart 1).Note 1

Because regional differences in unemployment rates are persistent (Chart 2), economists have long analyzed the factors that might inhibit or foster labour mobility in Canada (see, among others, Courchene 1970, 1984; Grant and Vanderkamp 1976; Vanderkamp 1968, 1971; Gomez and Gunderson 2007; and Day and Winer 2012) and have discussed whether labour mobility in Canada is sufficiently high.Note 2 It is generally accepted that spatial differences in earnings growth and employment opportunities might induce greater labour mobility from economically depressed areas to dynamic areas, while relatively generous transfer payments in high-unemployment areas might inhibit such mobility.

While economic theory has long emphasized the potential role that regional differences in employment, wages and the social safety net might play, another branch of the literature has documented a robust positive association between social capital (e.g., family, friends, community ties and neighbourhood) and well-being (Helliwell and Putnam 2004; Helliwell, Layard and Sachs 2012). If this positive association partly captures the causal impact of social capital on individuals’ well-being, and if labour mobility entails—at least temporarily—a disruption of one’s social capital, then having a strong social network might reduce one’s willingness to move to new areas. Hence, social as well as economic factors might act as barriers to labour mobility.Note 3

Chart 1 Percentage of the population migrating to another province the following year, 1971 to 2015

Data table for Chart 1
Data table for Chart 1
Table summary
This table displays the results of datafor Chart 1. Men and women aged 15 to 64 and Men aged 35 to 39, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Men and women aged 15 to 64 Men aged 35 to 39
percent
1971 2.0 2.3
1972 2.0 2.3
1973 2.2 2.6
1974 1.9 2.3
1975 1.7 2.1
1976 1.7 1.8
1977 1.6 1.8
1978 1.6 1.7
1979 1.6 1.7
1980 1.7 1.7
1981 1.6 1.5
1982 1.4 1.2
1983 1.2 1.1
1984 1.2 1.1
1985 1.2 1.1
1986 1.3 1.3
1987 1.3 1.4
1988 1.4 1.4
1989 1.5 1.5
1990 1.3 1.3
1991 1.2 1.0
1992 1.2 1.0
1993 1.1 0.9
1994 1.1 0.9
1995 1.1 0.9
1996 1.1 1.0
1997 1.1 1.0
1998 1.0 0.9
1999 1.0 0.9
2000 1.0 0.8
2001 1.1 1.1
2002 1.0 1.0
2003 0.9 1.0
2004 1.0 1.1
2005 1.0 1.2
2006 1.1 1.2
2007 1.0 1.2
2008 0.9 1.1
2009 0.9 1.0
2010 0.8 1.0
2011 0.9 1.0
2012 0.8 1.0
2013 0.9 1.0
2014 0.9 1.0
2015 0.9 1.0

Chart 2 Unemployment rate, Canada and the Atlantic provinces, 1953 to 2016

Data table for Chart 2
Data table for Chart 2
Table summary
This table displays the results of data for Chart 2. Atlantic provinces and Canada, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Atlantic provinces Canada
percent
1953 5.5 3.0
1954 6.6 4.6
1955 6.5 4.4
1956 6.0 3.4
1957 8.4 4.6
1958 12.5 7.0
1959 10.9 6.0
1960 10.7 7.0
1961 11.2 7.1
1962 10.7 5.9
1963 9.5 5.5
1964 7.8 4.7
1965 7.4 3.9
1966 6.4 3.6
1967 6.6 4.1
1968 7.3 4.8
1969 7.5 4.7
1970 7.6 5.9
1971 8.6 6.4
1972 9.0 6.3
1973 8.9 5.6
1974 9.7 5.4
1975 11.6 7.1
1976 10.7 7.1
1977 12.4 8.0
1978 12.3 8.4
1979 11.5 7.5
1980 11.0 7.5
1981 11.4 7.6
1982 14.0 11.0
1983 14.9 12.0
1984 15.1 11.3
1985 15.5 10.5
1986 14.9 9.6
1987 13.7 8.8
1988 12.2 7.8
1989 12.1 7.5
1990 12.8 8.1
1991 13.9 10.3
1992 14.9 11.2
1993 15.2 11.4
1994 14.8 10.4
1995 13.4 9.5
1996 13.7 9.6
1997 13.7 9.1
1998 12.8 8.3
1999 11.6 7.6
2000 11.2 6.8
2001 11.6 7.2
2002 11.4 7.7
2003 11.1 7.6
2004 10.7 7.2
2005 10.4 6.8
2006 9.8 6.3
2007 9.1 6.0
2008 9.3 6.1
2009 10.5 8.3
2010 10.7 8.1
2011 10.1 7.5
2012 10.3 7.3
2013 10.2 7.1
2014 10.0 6.9
2015 10.0 6.9
2016 10.0 7.0

Despite long-standing interest from researchers and policy makers in the factors that might foster or impede mobility, relatively little data have been available to assess directly the relative importance of specific barriers. The scarcity of data on these barriers has been highlighted in recent years. In a study that sought to identify the most important knowledge gaps on interprovincial barriers to labour mobility in Canada, MacMillan and Grady (2007, p. 31) argue that “the most important knowledge gap concerns the extent of the regulatory barriers to labour mobility and their impacts and costs.” More generally, there is currently little evidence on the degree to which unemployed Canadians prefer not to move to other areas because of family, friends, housing costs, difficulties having their credentials recognized in another province, or other financial reasons.

This article is a first step toward filling this knowledge gap. Using data from the 2016 General Social Survey, the study examines the degree to which unemployed Canadians report that non-recognition of credentials outside of their province, housing costs, family, friends, or financial reasons inhibit them from accepting job offers outside their province of residence or in other cities within their province of residence. For the first time in Canada, the study provides representative survey-based evidence on barriers to labour mobility collected directly from unemployed individuals.Note 4 The study focuses on unemployed individuals aged 15 to 64 who are not students.

Barriers to interprovincial labour mobility

Of all unemployed individuals aged 15 to 64 who were not students in 2016, about one-third (32%) reported facing no barrier to interprovincial mobility, i.e., they answered “No” to the following question (Statistics Canada n.d., LPW_Q14):

“If you were offered a job in another province, would there be anything standing in your way of accepting that job offer?”

The remaining two-thirds reported that, for some reason,Note 5 they would not move to another province should they receive a job offer from employers outside their province.Note 6

As expected, unemployed individuals who were under age 40 or were unmarried were more willing to accept job offers outside their province than their counterparts who were aged 40 and over or married (Chart 3). For example, 39% of unmarried individuals reported that nothing would stand in their way of accepting such job offers, whereas 25% of married individuals did so. Furthermore, men were more likely than women to report the absence of any constraint to mobility.Note 7

Chart 3 Percentage of unemployed individuals who report no barrier to interprovincial labour mobility

Data table for Chart 3
Data table for Chart 3
Table summary
This table displays the results of datafor Chart 3. The information is grouped by Groups of unemployed individuals (appearing as row headers), Reporting no barrier, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Groups of unemployed individuals Reporting no barrier
percent
Men and women aged 15 to 64 32.3
Men 35.1
Women 28.1
Married individuals 25.3
Unmarried individuals 39.2
Individuals aged 15 to 39 37.0
Individuals aged 40 to 64 27.5

While two-thirds of unemployed Canadians reported that they would not move to another province to take a job, one-half of unemployed Canadians said that family and social ties were the main reasons for this. More specifically, 30% said their desire to stay close to family and friends was the main reason they would not move, 13% said the main reason was that their spouse or children would not want to move, and almost 7% said the main reason was that they needed to care for a relative (Table 1-1).

Financial reasons were far less prevalent. Only 10% of all unemployed Canadians said the main reason they would not change provinces to take a job was that moving would not be feasible for financial reasons or that housing would be too expensive elsewhere.

A very small fraction (1%) reported that they would not move because their credentials would not be recognized in another province or (1%) because moving would be too demanding. About 6% reported that they would not move for other reasons.

Hence, three key findings emerge thus far. First, two-thirds of unemployed Canadians reported that they would not move if they received a job offer outside their home province. This suggests that the subset of unemployed individuals who are willing to fill job vacancies in economically dynamic provinces is, a priori, fairly limited. Second, one-half of all unemployed individuals said that social factors—the preferences of family members or the desire to stay close to family and friends—were the main reason they would not move out of their province. This highlights the importance of social ties as a determinant of a person’s willingness to migrate to other provinces. Third, there is very little evidence, if any, that individuals’ inability to have their credentials recognized outside their province is an empirically significant barrier to mobility.

Table 1-1
Percentage of unemployed individuals who would not move to another province, by main reason for not moving and selected groups — Part 1
Table summary
This table displays the results of Percentage of unemployed individuals who would not move to another province. The information is grouped by Main reason for not moving to another province (appearing as row headers), Individuals aged 15 to 64, Men, Women, Individuals aged 15 to 39, Individuals aged 40 to 64, Married individuals and Unmarried individuals, calculated using percent and number units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Main reason for not moving to another province Individuals aged 15 to 64 Men Women Individuals aged 15 to 39 Individuals aged 40 to 64 Married individuals Unmarried individuals
percent
Personal reasons 49.8 44.9 57.0 44.3 55.4 61.5 38.0
To stay close to family and friends 30.0 28.4 32.4 32.0 28.0 30.3 29.7
To take care of relatives 6.5 7.5 5.1 2.6 10.4 7.3 5.7
My spouse or children would not want to move 13.3 9.1 19.6 9.6 17.0 23.9 2.6
Moving would be too demanding 1.3 2.0 0.3 1.2 1.4 1.6 1.0
Housing is too expensive elsewhere 1.2 1.0 1.4 1.4 1.0 0.0 2.4
Moving would not be feasible for financial reasons 8.9 10.1 7.1 10.6 7.1 4.0 13.8
My credentials are not recognized outside my province 0.6 0.8 0.4 0.0 1.2 0.3 0.9
Other 5.8 6.2 5.2 5.6 6.0 7.3 4.2
Don't know 0.2 0.0 0.6 0.0 0.5 0.0 0.5
Total 67.7 64.9 71.9 63.0 72.5 74.7 60.8
number
Sample size 660 365 295 267 393 317 343

Table 1-1 also shows that women were twice as likely as men to report that they would not move because their spouse or children would not want to move. The difference likely reflects—at least in part—the fact that many women are still secondary earners in their family and therefore take their husband’s employment status into account when considering job offers. As expected, unmarried individuals (some of whom are lone parents) were much less likely than married individuals to cite this factor as the main reason why they would not move. However, they were more likely than married individuals to report that moving would not be feasible for financial reasons.

Table 1-2 shows that unemployed individuals with more than a high school education reported more often (16%) than their less educated counterparts (9%) that they would not move because their spouse or children would not want to move. Unemployed individuals who experienced financial hardshipNote 8 since looking for work reported that moving would not be feasible for financial reasons twice as often (13%) as their counterparts who did not experience such financial hardship (6%).

Table 1-2
Percentage of unemployed individuals who would not move to another province, by main reason for not moving and selected groups — Part 2
Table summary
This table displays the results of Percentage of unemployed individuals who would not move to another province. The information is grouped by Main reason for not moving to another province (appearing as row headers), Individuals aged 15 to 64, Individuals with a high school diploma or less education, Individuals with more education, Individuals who looked for work for 16 weeks or less, Individuals who looked for work for more than 16 weeks, Individuals who experienced financial hardship and Individuals who did not experience financial hardship, calculated using percent and number units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Main reason for not moving to another province Individuals aged 15 to 64 Individuals with a high school diploma or less education Individuals with more education Individuals who looked for work for 16 weeks or less Individuals who looked for work for more than 16 weeks Individuals who experienced financial hardship Individuals who did not experience financial hardship
percent
Personal reasons 49.8 44.9 52.6 48.2 51.9 46.2 52.6
To stay close to family and friends 30.0 28.2 31.0 29.8 30.2 26.2 32.9
To take care of relatives 6.5 7.5 6.0 3.8 10.0 8.7 4.8
My spouse or children would not want to move 13.3 9.2 15.6 14.5 11.7 11.3 14.8
Moving would be too demanding 1.3 0.9 1.5 1.0 1.6 1.5 1.1
Housing is too expensive elsewhere 1.2 3.2 0.0 1.0 1.5 1.1 1.3
Moving would not be feasible for financial reasons 8.9 8.5 9.1 8.4 9.5 12.5 6.0
My credentials are not recognized outside my province 0.6 0.0 0.9 0.8 0.3 0.3 0.8
Other 5.8 9.7 3.5 6.9 4.3 5.7 5.8
Don't know 0.2 0.0 0.4 0.4 0.0 0.0 0.4
Total 67.7 67.2 68.1 66.7 69.1 67.3 68.1
number
Sample size 660 256 404 380 280 280 380

Barriers to intraprovincial labour mobility

While about one-third of unemployed individuals reported a willingness to accept job offers from outside their home province, more than 4 out of 10 (43%) reported being willing to accept job offers in other cities within their home province.Note 9 As was the case for interprovincial mobility, the willingness to accept jobs in other cities was greater among men, individuals under 40 and unmarried individuals than among other individuals.

Overall, 36% of unemployed individuals reported that they would not accept job offers in other cities because they wanted to stay close to family and friends or to take care of relatives, or because their spouse or children would not want to move (Table 2-1).

Close to 15% responded that they would not change cities because moving would be too demanding, housing would be too expensive elsewhere, or moving would not be feasible for financial reasons. About 6% reported that they would not move for other reasons.

Thus, 57% of unemployed individuals reported that for some reason, they would not move to another city, should they receive a job offer from an employer within their province.

In general, the patterns shown in Tables 2-1 and 2-2 are very similar to those in Tables 1-1 and 1-2. Regardless of the groups considered, between 52% and 73% of unemployed individuals who would not move to other cities reported personal reasons as the main reason, i.e., that they wished to maintain their ties with their family, friends or relatives. Once again, this highlights the fact that family and friends are important considerations.

Table 2-1
Percentage of unemployed individuals who would not move to another city within their province, by main reason for not moving and selected groups — Part 1
Table summary
This table displays the results of Percentage of unemployed individuals who would not move to another city within their province. The information is grouped by Main reason for not moving to another city (appearing as row headers), Individuals aged 15 to 64, Men, Women, Individuals aged 15 to 39, Individuals aged 40 to 64, Married individuals and Unmarried individuals, calculated using percent and number units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Main reason for not moving to another city Individuals aged 15 to 64 Men Women Individuals aged 15 to 39 Individuals aged 40 to 64 Married individuals Unmarried individuals
percent
Personal reasons 36.2 28.8 47.3 31.7 40.8 46.1 26.3
To stay close to family and friends 20.1 17.3 24.3 20.2 20.0 22.0 18.2
To take care of relatives 4.7 4.7 4.8 2.0 7.5 4.1 5.4
My spouse or children would not want to move 11.4 6.8 18.2 9.5 13.3 20.1 2.7
Moving would be too demanding 1.7 1.8 1.5 2.2 1.1 1.7 1.6
Housing is too expensive elsewhere 1.8 0.8 3.3 1.9 1.7 1.1 2.6
Moving would not be feasible for financial reasons 11.1 10.8 11.5 12.1 10.0 6.3 15.8
Other 6.1 7.3 4.3 4.7 7.5 8.3 4.0
Total 56.9 49.5 67.9 52.7 61.2 63.5 50.3
number
Sample size 660 365 295 267 393 317 343
Table 2-2
Percentage of unemployed individuals who would not move to another city within their province, by main reason for not moving and selected groups — Part 2
Table summary
This table displays the results of Percentage of unemployed individuals who would not move to another city within their province. The information is grouped by Main reason for not moving to another city (appearing as row headers), Individuals aged 15 to 64, Individuals with a high school diploma or less education, Individuals with more education, Individuals who looked for work for 16 weeks or less, Individuals who looked for work for more than 16 weeks, Individuals who experienced financial hardship and Individuals who did not experience financial hardship, calculated using percent and number units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Main reason for not moving to another city Individuals aged 15 to 64 Individuals with a high school diploma or less education Individuals with more education Individuals who looked for work for 16 weeks or less Individuals who looked for work for more than 16 weeks Individuals who experienced financial hardship Individuals who did not experience financial hardship
percent
Personal reasons 36.2 31.6 38.8 34.6 38.3 31.1 40.2
To stay close to family and friends 20.1 19.0 20.7 19.7 20.6 16.1 23.2
To take care of relatives 4.7 3.9 5.2 3.0 6.9 5.1 4.4
My spouse or children would not want to move 11.4 8.8 12.9 11.9 10.8 9.9 12.6
Moving would be too demanding 1.7 2.2 1.4 2.1 1.2 1.5 1.8
Housing is too expensive elsewhere 1.8 3.5 0.9 1.5 2.3 2.0 1.7
Moving would not be feasible for financial reasons 11.1 9.4 12.0 11.0 11.1 14.1 8.7
Other 6.1 7.9 5.1 6.9 5.2 7.0 5.4
Total 56.9 54.6 58.2 56.1 58.0 55.7 57.9
number
Sample size 660 256 404 380 280 280 380

Chart 4 Percentage of unemployed individuals who report no barrier to intraprovincial labour mobility

Data table for Chart 4
Data table for Chart 4
Table summary
This table displays the results of data for Chart 4. The information is grouped by Groups of unemployed individuals (appearing as row headers), Reporting no barrier, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Groups of unemployed individuals Reporting no barrier
percent
Men and women aged 15 to 64 43.1
Men 50.5
Women 32.1
Married individuals 36.5
Unmarried individuals 49.7
Individuals aged 15 to 39 47.3
Individuals aged 40 to 64 38.8

Conclusion

Despite a long-standing interest in labour mobility among researchers and policy makers, relatively little has been known about the barriers impeding the mobility of unemployed Canadians. Using data from the 2016 General Social Survey, this study informs this discussion.

The results indicate that, if they were offered jobs in other provinces or elsewhere within their home province, the majority of unemployed Canadians would not accept such job offers. The main reasons are the desire or need to stay close to family and friends, to provide care to relatives, or to take into account the opinion of one’s spouse and children. Hence, family considerations play an important role in individuals’ willingness (or lack thereof) to move to other areas to find employment. In contrast, very few reported that recognition of credentials outside their province limits their interprovincial mobility.

A few limitations must be noted. First, the data used in this study measure the responses of unemployed Canadians and are therefore not informative about the barriers to mobility faced by Canadians who are currently employed. Second, the answers provided by respondents are the product of both their economic environment and their social environment. For instance, if long-term unemployment were to reach fairly high levels in some areas, it is conceivable that some of the unemployed individuals in these areas might revise upwards their reported willingness to accept job offers elsewhere. In light of this, the responses provided in the survey are best viewed as being conditional on current economic, institutional and social parameters.

Nonetheless, the data shed new light on an important issue. Specifically, they highlight the complementarity between studies based on conventional econometric methods and studies that ask individuals why they would not move to take a job elsewhere. While studies based on conventional econometric methods may allow an assessment of the causal impact of various factors that foster or impede mobility (e.g., the causal impact of regional wage differences on mobility), they are not well suited for uncovering the motivations underlying individuals’ willingness to move. Social networks are a strong determinant of individual well-being. Given that labour mobility entails a disruption of such networks, incorporating the link between social ties and well-being into discussions of labour market flexibility and labour mobility might be a useful exercise.

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