Category Archives: Employment

Ottawa’s penny-pinching pound-foolishness

 

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For a government that purports to hold the interests of hard-working, middle-class folks close to heart, Harpertown sure has a funny way of showing it. 

Unless, of course, by showing it, our estimable representatives in Ottawa mean to produce precisely nothing to show for the $4.6 million they recently flushed down the public’s drain.   

That was the tidy sum Statistics Canada spent in 2012 asking 25,000 employers across the country about such timely matters as the workplace skills gap – surveys that now sit on a shelf, unanalyzed and unpublished, because the money’s run out to complete the job. 

Not for nothing, but no less a formidable parliamentarian than Employment Minister Jason Kenney has framed skills shortages and mismatches as one of the most important issues in the nation’s recent history. Indeed, in a speech to the Economic Club of Canada last fall, he was adamant and unequivocal. 

“As the head of Canada’s economic union, the federal government plays a critical role in creating the conditions for strong private sector job creation to position our country for success in an increasingly competitive global economy,” he declared. 

“What I’m going to do is to share with you my take on what many agree is the biggest challenge facing our economy. I’m going to talk about how we can tackle skill shortages and skill mismatches, turning them into good jobs for Canadians and greater prosperity for the long term because I think my number one priority is to address this paradox of too many Canadians without jobs in an economy that has too many jobs without skilled workers.”

Of course, to do this, one needs an arsenal of good, accurate information. Or, does one?

Thanks to some intrepid reporting by the Globe and Mail this week, we now know that the StatsCan data, which was collected at the behest of Employment and Social Development Canada, “has sat idle for two years due to lack of funding to make it public. . .StatsCan collected the surveys over the first three months of 2012, but the funding ended there, before the data could be analyzed.”

In the wake of a $30 million budget cut to the numbers-crunching Agency’s budget over the past 24 months, it’s hard to avoid a creepy sensation of deja vu.  

In 2010, when the federal government announced it was scrapping the mandatory long-form census in favour of a “voluntary” household survey, editorials in just about every major newspaper in Canada screamed their disapproval. The nation’s two top statisticians, Munir Sheikh and Phil Cross, actually resigned their posts in evident, if dignified, protest.

In a news advisory at the time, Mr. Sheikh wrote that while he could not “reveal and comment on (the) advice” he gave the government “because this information is protected under the law,” he wanted to “take this opportunity to comment on a technical statistical issue which has become the subject of media discussion. This relates to the question of whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census. . .It can not.”

Only last summer, Robert Gerst, a partner in charge of operational excellence and research and statistical methods at Calgary-based Converge Consulting Group Inc., declared in an opinion piece for the Waterloo Region Record, “The quality of the results has come under criticism because the voluntary survey replaced the compulsory long-form census questionnaire. In effect, this replaced a random sample with a non-random sample. Non-random samples have their place, but making conclusions about the population isn’t one of them.

Naturally, then, “no conclusions about the Canadian population can be drawn from the national household survey. Since making these types of conclusions is the whole point of a census, the survey data is worthless. (This is also true for any survey where participation is voluntary, including citizen, customer and employee satisfaction surveys).”

Apparently, we’ve devolved from worthless survey data to non-existent survey data – or, at least, unexamined and, therefore, worse than worthless if only because we’ve still had to pay the bill for its compilation.

When will this government get it through its institutional head that to speak with any degree of authority about anything, one must first have facts and figures – evidence – at one’s disposal? 

That’s what truly concerns hard-working, middle-class Canadians about their elected officials and the policies they pursue in the interests they purport to hold dear.

 

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When Johnny can’t read, we all suffer

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Some in New Brunswick (mostly politicians) will characterize rising or stable grade school enrolments in the province’s urban south in the vaguely encouraging ways one does when happy appearances mask troubling truths.

Is it heartening that, in a jurisdiction where outmigration among the young threatens to rend the social and economic fabric, classroom head counts are up, especially in the Francophone system?

Do we care that they come at the expense of the rural north, where communities are steadily emptying? At least, the number of bums in seats from Moncton to Fredericton to Saint John, is increasing. That ought to count for something. Oughtn’t it?

Of course, apart from this statistical shuffling of human capital from one region of the province to the other, what matters most is the education of these fresh-faced scholars during their academic sojourn. And in this regard, alone, no one in New Brunswick has cause for any degree of sanguinity.

The news from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) most recent study on literacy, numeracy and skills is in. And, for New Brunswick, the news is not good. In fact, it’s plain awful.

Though Canada, overall, scored just above the OECD mean for 22 countries in reading ability (and just below in problem solving), New Brunswick ranked below in both categories. What’s more, the think tank observes a widening gap between those who can and those who cannot read in this country:

“Canada has a higher proportion of its population at the highest and lowest levels in literacy. Fourteen percent of Canadians score at Level 4 or 5, meaning that they can undertake tasks that involve integrating information across multiple dense texts and reasoning by inference. This places Canada above the OECD average of 12 per cent, along with Japan (23 per cent), Finland (22 per cent), the Netherlands (19 per cent), Australia (17 per cent), and Sweden (16 per cent).

“At the other end of the scale, 17 per cent of Canadians score at Level 1 or below. Of these, 13 per cent score at Level 1: These individuals have skills that enable them to undertake tasks of limited complexity, such as locating single pieces of information in short texts in the absence of other distracting information. The remaining 4 per cent, categorized as ‘below Level 1,’ do not command these skills. They demonstrate only basic vocabulary, as well as the ability to read brief texts on familiar topics to locate a single piece of specific information. The OECD average for Level 1 or below is 15 per cent.”

As New Brunswick hovers near the bottom of the Canadian results, the literacy gap in this province is, presumably, more pronounced than in many other parts of the country.

All of which has rung the alarm bell for educators and literacy workers here.

“We continue to have over 50 per cent of the New Brunswick population below a Level 3 literacy level, which we consider to be a high school equivalency,” the Literacy Coalition of New Brunswick’s Natasha Bozek told the Telegraph-Journal on Tuesday.

Added Patrick Lacroix of Elementary Literacy Inc. in the same article, “There is a huge amount of work ahead of us. Yes, the schools are making a lot of effort focused on literacy. But it takes the community to stress the importance of tackling the problem and to get as many people as possible involved in this movement for change.”

He’s right. The figurative village that raises the child must also teach him how to read and do math both in and out of the classroom. This requires a cultural shift in attitudes about learning – a basic acknowledgement that these hard skills are simply and permanently fundamental to a prosperous economy and effective labour force.

Is it a coincidence that nations, such as Japan and Finland, which boast comparatively high literacy and numeracy rates are also among the world’s most innovative (if not always the most economically robust).

In the end, it’s not the number of heads in New Brunswick schools that matter.

It’s what’s in them.

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Forget ‘slow pay.’ How about ‘no pay?’

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Help Wanted: Are you a self-starter, a go-getter, someone who takes care of business and, to paraphrase Bachman-Turner Overdrive, loves to work for nothing all day?

Are you young, eager, over-educated, underemployed, desperate to gain a toe-hold in the wonderful world of work? Are you at the end of your rope?

If this sounds like you, then look no further. We at The Ritual Abuse Corporation – one of the largest private employment agencies in the world – want to meet you. Our inboxes are on fire thanks the steadily rising number of our clients who are searching for someone just like you; someone who will fill a short-term, unpaid internship and whistle a happy tune whilst doing it. “Thank you mother,” you’ll croon, “may I have another?”

You must have heard about this. It’s all the rage in the post-apocalyptic, financially melted global economy.

According to an article a in the Daily Mail, out of the UK, a couple years back, “Firms across the country are increasingly relying on unpaid interns in a bid to cut costs in a tough economic climate, according to a new study. Bosses in the design and digital industry expect more work for less money, leading to fewer permanent staff members and more unpaid interns, according to think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research, which carried out a survey of 500 agency workers.”

More recently, Susan Adams, a staff writer at Forbes, observed, “As the ranks of the unemployed have swelled and the surplus of jobless college students and grads has grown, increasing numbers of people young and old have been signing on for unpaid internships, wanting to make contacts and accumulate résumé lines that can help them get paying work.”

Indeed, it’s a win-win for everybody – a joyful alliance between probity and exigency. Think of the opportunities that await you.

As an unpaid intern, everything is within your job description. On any given day, you might find yourself slinging coffee. When your bosses (a group which comprises just about everyone else in the organization) spill said coffee, you’ll be dispatched to clean up the mess. Think of the contacts you’ll make. Imagine the résumé lines you’ll be able to accumulate.

Of course, your employer also benefits from not having to book your wages and benefits (because, officially, there are none). That means it gets to keep its hard-earned cash in the bank where it’s been sitting for years.

That’s important, especially when you consider the natural oder of the universe, neatly summarized in a CNN Money piece late last year: “Just four years after the worst shock to the economy since the Great Depression, U.S. corporate profits are stronger than ever. In the third quarter, corporate earnings were $1.75 trillion, up 18.6 per cent from a year ago. . .That took after-tax profits to their greatest percentage of GDP in history. But the record profits come at the same time that workers’ wages have fallen to their lowest-ever share of GDP. ‘That’s how it works,’ said Robert Brusca, economist with FAO Research in New York, who said there is a natural tension between profits and the cost of labor. ‘If one gets bigger, the other gets smaller.’”

Still, you shouldn’t delay hitching up for the next available unpaid tour of duty. Storm clouds are gathering and pretty soon it may begin to rain on everyone’s parade. Consider one recent headline.

“Two former interns have filed complaints with government against Bell Mobility, alleging the telecom giant broke labour laws by not paying them for work they did for the company,” CBC News reported in June. ‘It felt like I was sitting in an office as an employee, doing regular work. It didn’t feel like a sort of training program,’ said Jainna Patel, 24, who was an unpaid intern with Bell for five weeks last year. ‘They just squeezed out of you every hour they could get and never showed any intent of paying.’”

In fact, that sounds very much like another species of unpaid labour that even we, at The Ritual Abuse Corporation, would never condone: entrepreneurship.

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A pot-kettle-black moment for a good read

Where the hypocrites float

Where the hypocrites float

It’s not that I disagree with Thomas Frank, the resident writer of Harper’s polemical column “Easy Chair” and one of America’s finest living essayists. It’s not that I take issue with his latest effort in this month’s issue of the magazine and what he says about the financial collapse of 2008 or the “waste product” that “had been deliberately moved through the bowels of a hundred shady mortgage outfits.”

In fact, I have no problem at all with his visceral renderings of the villains and thugs who further soiled the already reeking back alleys of Wall Street with the scat from their gorging on other people’s money bought with the proceeds from their particular form of legal larceny. I have no problem with this: “Bribery and deceit and crazy incentives had been the laxatives that pushed this product down the pipe; money and bonhomie and reassuring economic theory had been the sedatives that put the regulators to sleep.”

I was one of those people “who were left to cry over cratered investments.” I have friends and relatives in the United States who were left “to pay for the bailouts and endure the downturn.” No one needed to be Greek, in those days, to appreciate that this wretched thing of ours “may well be the central economic episode” of our lives.

Surely, it has scarred us, marked us, made us less generous, less trusting – especially of authority, which is ironic when you consider that it was an almost complete lack of oversight that facilitated the global disaster. Or, as Mr. Frank, puts it: “The industry would supervise itself, we were told – and we believed it. Instead, our economic order turned out to be wobbly, even rotten. The great banks looked insolvent. The great capitalists looked like criminals.”

As for the salvation of these cheats and their confederates, it was purchased at the expense of trillions of dollars in taxes – dollars that would never again be fully available to the purposes and projects for which they were intended. In the process, we learned that “there was a whole class of businesses that could not be allowed to fail, no matter what kinds of suicide missions they undertook. . .That this class’s chosen public persona was one of churlish, sniggering contempt for the non-crooks who were now required to rescue them only compounded the shock.”

And the shocks keep coming: The evisceration of what was once known as the middle class; the yawning and widening chasm between those who have and those who have not; the gnawing suspicion that meaningful economic progress is a thing of the past; the scattering of all but the richest members of the global entrepreneurs’ club; the mounting debt; the disappearing jobs; the pervasive, collective sense of impotence.

Writes Mr. Frank: “A society that believes good government to be an impossibility is unlikely to do what is necessary to keep industry honest. Instead, its regulators will come to see the regulated, rather than the public, as their main clients. . .The rest of us will resign ourselves to scandal after scandal, as a new generation of looters rises up to claim positions at the trough when the old looters retire.”

As this esteemed writer – with decidedly progressive leanings and an artful skill at the angry lament – notes, we have become hardened by our travails, cynical in the long shadow our rage once cast. We no longer demand to know how these things could happen to us. We expect them with the regularity of the changing seasons. It’s not our fault, exactly, though “we have chosen to live with that.” What else should we expect of ourselves? “Just grab your cash,” he writes, “and hang on.”

No, I don’t disagree with any of this. I take no issue with the premise or conclusions of this lengthy screed.

Still, I do wonder, as I cast my eyes down past the bottom of Mr. Frank’s worthy essay on the crimes of the rich, the essential unfairness now bred in the bone of a once-far-more-generous society, and read the following ad posted by his own employer, Harper’s, which is “accepting applications” from university grads for two art and editorial department internships:

“All interns are encouraged to generate ideas, read widely, and approach problems creatively. . .Both positions are unpaid.”

What say you now, Mr. Frank, on the subject of grabbing cash and hanging on?

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