Category Archives: Workplace

For once, a great notion

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Astoundingly, the federal and provincial governments in Atlantic Canada are getting out of their own way and forging a rational, relevant and thoroughly reasonable accord designed to improve both job prospects and economic development in the region for years to come.

And no, bitter winter weather aside, hell is not freezing over.

Witness last week’s announcement of an $8-million joint program (cost-shared between the feds, who are ponying up $4.3 million and the four Atlantic provinces, who will contribute $3.5 million) to promote trades training and apprenticeships and remove educational and labour market barriers that prevent employers and workers from finding  true, wedded, occupational bliss together.

“What’s happening now (is), in essence, we have four provinces doing their own thing virtually doing the same thing,” Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil told The Halifax Chronicle-Herald.

That’s got to go, said federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney at a news conference in Fredericton last week: “We need to break down the unnecessary red tape and bureaucracy that exists to people getting their apprenticeships done and to getting their journeyman ticketed status so they can actually be full journeymen on the job sites and moving around to where the work is.”

In practice, the program will harmonize training, certifications and standards across the region in 10 trades, starting with cook, instrumentation and control technician, bricklayer and construction electrician. The rest will follow in due course, and not a moment too soon.

For decades, certain parts of Canada have been enduring a steady erosion in the number of skilled tradespeople on the job. Where once being a cabinet maker or plumber was considered a thoroughly viable career choice, we somehow got it into our heads that, as Mr. Kenny so aptly states, “everyone just had to go to university. . . We stopped encouraging people to pursue vocational and technical trades in our  high schools.”

In recent years, the pendulum has begun to swing back. According to careersintrades.ca “the wage gap between workers with bachelor degrees and trade certificates is declining.  Between 2000 and 2011, the average weekly wages of full-time workers aged 25 to 34 with trades certificates grew by 14 per cent, while bachelor degree holders saw their wage growth slow to 1per cent. And, apprentices begin to make money right away, earning a wage from their first day at work.”

And yet, according to Rick Spence, business columnist, writing in the Financial Post last year, “Studies cited by Skills Canada, a federally supported organization dedicated to trades and apprenticeships, indicate 40 per cent of new jobs in he coming decade will be in skilled trades or technology (think computer animation, network support, etc.). “

Meanwhile, in guidance offices and family dining rooms, the song remains the same: just 26 per cent of young people aged 13 to 24 plan to consider a career in the skilled trades, with 59 per cent of youths saying their parents have not encouraged them to consider the trades as a career option.”

Given the coming demographic changes – the last cohort of baby boomers retiring (we’ll see about that, of course), dropping birth rates, and a steady-state universe for immigrants – a country with an increasingly light supply of people who can actually make things, like toilets, work invites a whole new set of productivity problems not yet imagined in chambers where bankers and economists chatter about national competitiveness.

Indeed, as Mr. Kenney observed, “We have a lot of tradesmen, the guys and ladies who literally built the the country, who are about to start retiring. We have a much smaller group of people to fill their shoes.”

It is refreshing, like a blast of Arctic air, to hear politicians of any stripe, from any level, talk pragmatically about issues into which they are willing to invest some expertise and over which they are prepared to exert some control – and all for the common good.

It is heartening to watch them put their heads together, work out their problems logically and calmly and, when the day’s work is done, unveil the big reveal.

Why, it’s almost as if some of them went to trade school.

Well. . .almost.

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The dos and don’ts of reducing disparity

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In an astonishing turn of events, worthy of major international coverage, your humble scribbler finds himself in actual, authentic agreement with the right-wing, free-market- loving think tank, the Fraser Institute.  Sort of.

How this happened is less important than why, which I can summarize thusly: Even a blind pitcher will hit the broad side of a barn once in a blue moon if he’s standing next to a silo. . .or. . .something like that.

The point is when the Institute’s recent report, The Economic Effect of Living Wage Laws, concludes that such legislation in the United States – which is designed to raise poor people’s salaries and, so, reverse growing income disparity – are backfiring, it is largely, albeit lamentably, correct.

“The best available evidence from the U.S. serves as a cautionary tale for us in Canada about adopting living wage laws,” said Charles Lammam, the study’s author and Fraser’s resident scholar in economic policy. “When governments try to legislate wages, there’s typically a trade-off – while some workers may benefit from a higher wage, their gain comes at the expense of others who lose as a result of fewer employment opportunities,”

The press release continues on to explain: “Although activists claim living wage laws can increase wages with minimal costs, the reality is quite different. According to the best available research, a 100 per cent increase in the living wage (for example, going from an hourly minimum wage of $10 to $20) reduces employment among low-wage workers by between 12 and 17 per cent.”

The reason has to do with labour market shock. When living wages are “mandated” to rise regardless of other factors and circumstances, businesses cut back jobs – especially the lower-end ones – and training programs precisely because they are not likewise “mandated” to employ anyone. The relationship between the supply of jobs and the regulations governing pay rates asymmetrically disadvantages workers.

This has the corollary effect of undermining overall productivity and innovation in the private sector despite the fact that Mr. Lammam found evidence suggesting that “employers also respond to living wage laws by hiring more qualified workers and passing over those with fewer skills thereby reducing the opportunity for less-skilled workers to participate in the labour market.”

All of which only means that which we already know: Governments are lousy micromanagers of wages and prices. But can they play any productive role in narrowing the income gap between the rich and the rest? Fraser doesn’t say, but I suspect their answer would be: “a minimal one, thank you very much.”

This is where I (with a sense of great relief) would part company with the Institute.

The socio-economic costs of wage disparities, which are growing rapidly in the western world, are several and serious. As more money flows to fewer people, lobbies and special interests skew public spending priorities.

Suddenly, the infrastructure on which a fair and democratic nation relies – everything from public transportation, roads and bridges to schools and hospitals – becomes less important than tax cuts for the wealthy.

The malign effect on the culture is equally worrying. Prolonged, structural economic inequality creates class systems and all the attendant evils of social immobility: little access to high quality education and jobs; and few, if any, opportunities for meaningful career advancement. In effect, permanent, grinding working poverty becomes the norm for millions until, of course, comes the revolution.

Governments, then, owe it to themselves and to the people – all the people – they represent to be mindful of even the slightest imbalances in the scales of social justice. The role they play is not properly reactive (living wage legislation, as one example), but proactive. Robust, progressive, encompassing social policy designed to create the conditions for broad and general prosperity is what they can and do best.

They should start with a redistributive frame of mind by tithing the personal wealth of rich more aggressively. The notion that economic opportunity trickles down from the top is utterly bankrupt. Rich people spend less of their incomes, per capita, in their local economies than do middle-class wage earners.

Governments should also provide corporate generators of wealth with more incentives for plant reinvestment, job training and apprenticeship programs – for, in effect, a national, private-sector “manpower” program that focusses, once again, on people as much as it now does on profits.

Such are, of course, humble proposals that have, in the current political climate,  about as much chance of being adopted as I have.

On this matter, too, I am certain the Fraser Institute would concur.

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You get what you pay for

Nickel-and-diming the next generation

Nickel-and-diming the next generation

Before I became a newspaperman, magazine writer, broadcaster and author, I was a copy boy for Canadian Press. It was my first, real summer job, and I hated every sweltering, miserable, fetid moment of it.

From the heartbreaking hours (6 p.m. to 2 a.m., Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays), to the foul-tempered, Pall Mall-puffing deskers, it was a guaranteed, weekly nightmare that poisoned, for me, all the other days in that school break of 1976.

My duties were simple for a baboon: I made coffee runs; filed the nightly clippings; ordered the weather map from the airport; and, most importantly, ensured that the office’s stash of porn magazines was organized and reliably available.

The only good thing about the whole, rotten gig was that I got paid. It was a pittance, of course. But there was never any doubt about the principle of workplace compensation.

Today, scores of young people across North America, performing far more complex and worthy tasks for corporations earning record profits, can no longer take that principle for granted. They call themselves “unpaid interns.” I call them slaves.

“Hold on,” you might say. “Slaves have no choice. These kids are free to come and go as they like.” The distinction, I would argue, is a poor excuse for treating the next generation of skilled workers as if they were scullery maids in the downstairs kitchen of an English manse, circa 1902.

Not very long ago, this sort of thing was illegal. But around the time of the Yuppie uprising, in the early 1980s, Wall Street and Bay Street fat cats realized that federal governments in the United States and Canada were no longer interested in workplace conditions to the degree they once were. Suddenly, it was open season on the young and largely powerless. From there, the doctrine of greed spread to virtually every sector of the continental economy.

Today, by some estimates, as many as 300,000 unpaid interns in this country are working without a net. South of the border, the number may be as high as half-a-million. We may never know the real tally because neither nation’s numbers-crunching agency keeps tabs on the practice.

Incredibly, corporations justify their usury by claiming that they’re providing a public service. They say they are making it possible for individuals, who would not otherwise have an opportunity to cut their teeth in the work world, to deepen their resumes. But, unless you happen to be a trust-fund baby, the only “deepening” you will be doing is to the well of student debt the private sector seems perfectly content to see you excavate.

Or, as federal Liberal MP Scott Brison wryly told the CBC recently, “Be born into a family rich enough to subsidize you to enable you to take an unpaid internship with a great organization and with great experience.”

Lurking beneath the quip is his more serious concern. According to the CBC piece, “He’s calling on the federal government to measure the scope of the unpaid workforce, identify acceptable unpaid work placements and legislate changes to protect an increasingly ‘vulnerable generation’.”

Naturally, that’s not going to happen within the current mandate in Ottawa. But I grant kudos to Mr. Brison for trying, even though the effort does not go nearly far enough.

The issue here is not only monetary; it’s moral. The more entrenched the unpaid internship becomes in the labour force, the less likely anyone will fight to have it expurgated from the web of social norms. It’s very existence justifies its perpetuation – just as did, at one time, the unequal status of women, child labour and slavery, itself.

Plenty of organizations (such as the one that owns the newspaper for which I write) still pay their interns. They understand that, in doing so, they are reinforcing the imperiled notion of the square deal between employer and employee. More than this, they simply reckon that it is the right thing to do.

There were many moments during the summer of 1976 when I seriously considered not showing up for work. Had I been an unpaid intern, I’m certain I would have played permanent hooky, and I would not have become the angry, opinionated (and, yes, award-winning) journalist you see before you.

Maybe, that would have been a good thing. But I prefer to think that it would have been a loss – if only to my growing sense of self-discipline and respect for the sometimes, unavoidably fetid world of work.

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