TORONTO -- Although COVID-19 spread in Canada remains far greater than it was last spring, many Canadian employers seem ready to abandon the hiring freezes and bare-bones workforces that got them through 2020.

A recent survey conducted on behalf of staffing agency Express Employment Professionals (EEP) found that 31 per cent of hiring decision-makers expect their company to increase hiring in 2021, while only 10 per cent expect less hiring this year.

When a similar survey was taken at this time last year, only 16 per cent of hiring managers expected their company to take on new workers.

Of course, 2020 didn't play out the way anyone was expecting it to last January. Last year's survey was taken before COVID-19 had even been given that name, much less become a serious concern among Canadians.

Larger companies appear to be most bullish on hiring this year. According to the company's survey, 42 per cent of employers with 100 or more employees plan to add to their workforces in 2021, versus 17 per cent of companies with fewer than 10 employees.

"The larger companies tend to be more resilient, they're more diverse, they've got a little bit more flexibility from a cash perspective as well," Jessica Culo, an EEP franchise owner in Edmonton, told via telephone.

"The smaller businesses tend to be not so optimistic."

That lack of optimism is well-earned. The Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses estimates that 58,000 small businesses became inactive in 2020, and 181,000 – about one in six – are seriously contemplating following their lead.

Every time a business closes, its competitors gain a bit of market share, which may also help explain why larger organizations are in a better position to hire this year, Culo said.

Less clear is when over the next 11 months that hiring will actually happen. Most companies seem to be holding off for now, Culo said, anticipating that vaccinations and reopenings will have life somewhat back to normal before the end of 2021.

The EEP survey was conducted by The Harris Poll between Nov. 16 and Dec. 7, 2020, and involved online surveys of 506 Canadian hiring decision-makers.


If the jobs boom EEP expects does come to pass, it won't happen right away.

After regaining first-wave job losses for seven straight months, the Canadian economy shed 63,000 positions in December, according to Statistics Canada. Economists expect the January numbers to show further tightening of the job market, due to the restrictions on businesses in most provinces over the holiday season.

But while the losses were felt heavily in the most affected economic sectors – accommodation and food services, hair salons and culture, among others – some industries were gaining jobs even as COVID-19 cases hit record levels.

Topping that list was manufacturing, which picked up 15,000 jobs in December. Culo said manufacturing and supply chain industries, such as transportation, logistics and packaging, are among those that seem to be hiring most in the first weeks of 2021 as well.

Beyond that, though, she is also seeing demand in medical services and supplies, construction, project management, business services and accounting.

Staffing and recruitment agency Randstad Canada sees similar trends. Delivery drivers, procurement and supply chain specialists, and warehouse workers all made the cut for its list of the jobs expected to experience the most growth in Canadian demand in 2021.

"There's lots of opportunity that's starting to come back. The economy is starting to recover, regardless of what's going on with the closures," Carolyn Levy, Randstad's president of technologies and chief diversity officer, told on Thursday via telephone from Calgary.

Randstad's list also includes several positions that have direct connections to pandemic life: customer service representatives, essential retail workers, security analysts and architects, IT and support desk specialists, and registered nurses.

Retail workers may seem like an outlier on that list, even narrowed down to the essential stores allowed to stay open in many parts of the country. Levy said the health risk posed by working in retail is making it hard for some companies to fill all of their open positions.

"It's actually been quite difficult to attract people into that sector and then keep it sustainable, so they feel secure and safe while they're just trying to stock the shelves or help you check out," she said.

"That's not something we associated to groceries before – you are having a higher risk by being present. Not everyone's up for that."

Administrative assistants are on Randstad's list, too. Levy said that these positions were more often being eliminated before the pandemic, but employers now see them as necessary.

"That's really coming back, because of how many people are remote and the logistics around working with teams," she said.


Several of the positions on Randstad's most-hirable list can be done remotely. However, the company sees remote work as such a prominent and permanent fixture of the Canadian business landscape that it released a separate list focusing only on jobs that can be performed from home.

That top 10 includes the IT roles necessary to make remote work feasible, as well as 21st-century positions, such as social media managers and digital marketers, but also some jobs for which not working in an office was once thought impossible, including accountants and human resources administrators.

According to Levy, employers who have surveyed their employees about what sort of workplace they want going forward have found that an overwhelming majority of workers want to be able to continue to work from home at least some of the time.

The shift to remote work is not only affecting how employers interact with their employees, it's also changing how companies deal with each other.

Culo said workers in sales positions have seen significant changes, as virtual meetings provide for a different sort of relationship-building with clients than the traditional face-to-face approach.

"The men and women that we're placing in those roles, they're having to adapt," she said.

Buoyed by the rise of remote work, some Canadians are already fleeing big cities for quieter and more affordable communities, expecting that they'll be able to do their jobs from these places even once the pandemic is over. Employers, likewise, are realizing that there are benefits to attracting talented workers who may not want to live near their offices or deal with long commutes.

"Definitely this stuff is going to stick. This has introduced a new way of work, and it's disrupted a lot of old business norms that used to exist," Levy said.

"This is what businesses have to pay attention to, if they have not paid attention to it yet."