Are Tech Jobs More Pandemic-Proof?

Are Tech Jobs More Pandemic-Proof?

Although tech workers have proven to be more resilient than others during the COVID-19 economic downturn, the scale and scope of economic recovery vary across different demographic groups
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Viet Vu
Economist
Private: Sihwa Kim
Policy + Research Intern
August 18, 2020
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Canada is home to a rapidly growing and diverse tech workforce. In today’s labour market, tech jobs exist in all industries and contexts. While these jobs have often proven resilient in recessions, the unique context of COVID-19 pandemic-induced recession means the economic impact on tech workers is harder to predict. For example, low consumer confidence and supply chain disruptions have forced businesses to cut back on new projects and focus on infrastructure maintenance. In the United States (US), such a tendency has led to a significant drop in demand for front-end developers, engineers with specific programming expertise, technical consultants, software developers, and graphic designers

On the other hand, the COVID-19 crisis has presented unique opportunities for tech workers. As many people’s daily lives increasingly take place online and businesses of all kinds shift to online ordering and service channels, tech workers are becoming critical to the success of most industries. In the US labour market, job openings for roles such as cybersecurity engineer, web  developers, and systems engineer saw double-digit growth. As the pandemic has reshaped work and will undoubtedly continue to do so, technology is likely to become even more important. At the same time, the economic impact of COVID-19 on individual tech workers may still vary. TrustRadius’s April 2020 survey of 760 tech professionals in the US found that women in tech were 1.6 times more likely to be furloughed than men, who tend to have more seniority and less childcare burden. Specifically, among recent CERB recipients with children below the age of 18, mothers were more likely to be out of the labour force (52.7 percent) than fathers (40.8 percent). COVID-19 has also disproportionately affected visible minority workers, especially South Asian, Arab, and Black Canadians

Building on our research defining tech workers and tech occupations, we use the Labour Force Survey (LFS) from February to May 2020 to analyze the economic impact of COVID-19 on Canada’s tech workers. 

Our findings show that:

  • Compared to the rest of the economy, tech jobs are more resilient: the initial shock only decreased overall employment by 4.2 percent and by May tech worker employment had fully recovered to its pre-pandemic levels.
  • Though women tech workers experienced a smaller employment shock than men (2.2 percent compared to 4.6 percent), their employment recovery in May has been slower.
  • More recent immigrant tech workers (those who immigrated to Canada less than 10 years ago), saw little employment disruption, while less recent immigrants (those who immigrated to Canada more than 10 years ago) in tech occupations saw major initial employment disruption—and slow recovery.

Tech work has been resilient through the crisis

The impact of COVID-19 on the general labour market has been staggering—between February and April 2020, employment levels on the whole decreased by 15 percent. However, employment levels for tech workers only decreased by 4.2 percent in the same period. By May 2020, when some portions of the Canadian economy started opening up, tech employment had recovered to the pre-shut down level of February 2020, even though employment levels for the rest of the economy were still 13.2 percent below February. Though many factors could explain these differences, our previous research has highlighted the relatively higher ease of transitioning tech work to remote work, as well as the increased demand for digital services from the (perhaps temporary) shift to online services, shopping, work, and learning.

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Such sustained business demand is also represented in another trend. In the general labour market, the number of those who are employed but not working almost tripled between February and April 2020. For tech workers, that number only increased by 64 percent, likely due to a combination of existing or new ability to work from home, their salaried nature, and the sustained business demand throughout the crisis.

Identity, tech work, and COVID-19

In our previous research of tech work in Canada, we found pay and participation disparities for women, recent immigrants, Indigenous people, and visible minorities. Though the Labour Force Survey does not capture all of these identities, we explore whether the crisis has affected women and recent immigrants differently than men and non-immigrants in tech.

The gendered difference in employment recovery rate likely points to this existing inequality and the ways in which a lack of childcare options prevents women tech workers from going back to work.

Women tech workers experienced smaller initial disruption and slower recovery than men

Between February 2020 and April 2020, employment disruption for women tech workers were lower than men (2.2 percent compared to 4.6 percent). This was also reflected in the number of employed tech workers who are still actively working: there was only a 6.9 percent (22,000) decline for women while the same decline for male tech workers was 9.2 percent (99,000). Relatively lower disruption can likely be explained in part by the overrepresentation of older women in tech who lack (or no longer have) early childcare burdens. It may also be explained by gendered differences in specialization. While 43.9 percent of men in tech occupations received training in Architecture, Engineering, and Related Technologies, Business, Management, Marketing, and Related Studies is a more popular major for women. The fields in which more women tend to specialize largely correspond to the areas of technology that are most in demand during the COVID-19 crisis, including shifting to e-commerce and responding to the changing needs of customers.

The employment recovery observed in May 2020, however, paints a different picture. Though employment shocks to women tech workers were milder, their employment recovery was also slower than men. By May, total employment levels for women tech workers only sat at 98 percent of pre-crisis level, with little or no recovery, representing over 7,000 women tech workers. In comparison, employment levels for male tech workers had already recovered to pre-crisis levels by this time. Recent research demonstrates that the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating pre-existing inequality and widening the gender employment gap among parents. The gendered difference in employment recovery rate likely points to this existing inequality and the ways in which a lack of childcare options prevents women tech workers from going back to work

As we have argued previously, in understanding the employment impact and the economic disruption of this crisis, it is vital for policymakers to consider equity issues, to ensure that all workers and peoples in Canada are supported during what will be a challenging recovery.

Less recent immigrants were impacted the most, while seeing little recovery in May

Almost 1/3 of tech workers in Canada are recent immigrants, a share far exceeding that of the general labour force. This also likely reflects Canada’s immigration policy and its favourable selection process for skilled workers that meet the needs of employers in this growing industry. Recent immigrants, in particular those who immigrated to Canada less than 10 years ago, also saw the lowest employment disruption due to COVID-19, compared to non-immigrants and those who immigrated earlier. In fact, once we also consider those who are employed but are not currently working, the total employment level for more recent immigrants in tech actually increases slightly between February and April 2020. Canada has been increasingly accepting high-skilled tech workers under the Global Skills Strategy, a stream introduced in 2017. In fact, there have been more than 23,000 workers approved under the top five tech categories over its first three years. More than 2,300 applicants for the same top five tech roles were approved from January to March 2020, ahead of the COVID-19 shutdowns. The prearrangement of employment for these individuals based on employer demand prior to immigration may have acted as their safeguard against layoff.

This story is not reflective of the experience of those who immigrated to Canada more than 10 years ago. Employment levels in tech for this group declined by 14.7 percent between February and April 2020, the largest decline we observe for all the groups considered in this research. Lack of credential recognition and foreign work experience is one of the prominent causes of mid- or late-career restart, the wage gap, as well slow promotion opportunities for immigrants. Faced with a thick glass ceiling, many long-term immigrants have less seniority at work than their non-immigrant counterparts. The substantial drop in employment for tech workers who landed in Canada prior to 10 years (or longer) may be due to a combination of these factors.

The differences in employment by immigration status is also consistent with the recovery rate of each group. Total employment levels for tech workers who immigrated more than 10 years ago in May 2020 were only at 91.8 percent of their February 2020 levels. When we consider only those who are currently working, the number is reduced to 88.6 percent of pre-crisis levels. This is in contrast to employment experiences of more recent immigrant tech workers, whose total employment number in May 2020 exceeded the pre-crisis level by 13 percent. Similarly, non-immigrant tech workers were also headed for a successful rebound as provinces reopened. 

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what is causing this difference in employment rates. Some hypotheses could be explored in future works, including: the cohort-level occupational composition; the structural implications that has on employment disruption; the possibility that less recent immigrants temporarily visited or repatriated to their country of origin and are working remotely but not captured in the Labour Force Survey; varying financial situations of different immigrant groups that may affect whether they are eligible for emergency income support programs; or the age composition difference between immigrant groups (less recent immigrants are likely to skew older than more recent immigrants).

 

Through this analysis, it is clear that tech workers as a whole have been more resilient than other occupations in light of the recession caused by COVID-19. However, there are indications that this resilience has more to do with the demographic composition of these occupations. In general, we know that this crisis has affected women workers more disproportionately and caused more employment disruption for immigrants. In fact when we focus on specific groups of workers in tech, we realize that the landscape is uneven. Women tech workers whose work has been disrupted did not share the May 2020 recovery of many other workers, and less recent immigrants were met with a double-digit shock to employment that has also failed to recover in this same time period. As we have argued previously, in understanding the employment impact and the economic disruption of this crisis, it is vital for policymakers to consider equity issues, to ensure that all workers and peoples in Canada are supported during what will be a challenging recovery.

Methodology + Bibliography

For this research, we used the public use microdata files (PUMF) of the Labour Force Survey (LFS) between January 2018 and May 2020 to demonstrate the economic impact of COVID-19 on Canada’s tech workers. The LFS uses National Occupational Categories (NOC) to classify people working in different professions and collects monthly self-reported employment information using a probability-based sampling method to measure labour market conditions in Canada.

View our complete methodology + bibliography

For media enquiries, please contact Lianne George, Director of Strategic Communications at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship.

Viet Vu
Economist
Private: Sihwa Kim
Policy + Research Intern
August 18, 2020
Print Page

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