Where are the unemployed?

Guest Editorial by Roslyn Kunin - Troy Media - BC’s Business: Where are the unemployed?

McDonald’s had 500 positions to fill last month and held a job fair in Vancouver. The turnout was underwhelming. Far from having lineups of eager job seekers, it was hard to find a potential employee in the room.

What does this have to say about workers? What implications does it have for government policies? What can McDonald’s and similar companies do to meet their staffing needs in the face of such indifference to their job offerings?

It is surprising when jobs are available and no one is seeking them. In British Columbia, we have over 152,000 unemployed workers. These are people who are actively looking for work. The unemployment rate is 6.1 per cent. The rate among people 15 to 24 years old is roughly double that, and young people make up a big part of the work force in the fast food industry.

Going beyond those actively looking for work, we still have a lot of potential workers in the province. Only 63 per cent of the working age population in B.C. is either working or looking for work. In Alberta, that number is over 70 per cent. Why weren’t at least some of these folks at the job fair?

In Canada, there are options for people out of work like employment insurance and income assistance that can be more attractive than a low paid job, especially if one has to consider child care. Or the option might be staying at home with Mom and Dad until the ‘right’ job comes along. This can be dangerous. People who reach the age of 25 and have never held a job very rarely end up having a successful career or even steady work.

Employment insurance and income assistance are examples of government policies that give Canadians more choice about which jobs to take and not take. Some employers feel that these programs are too generous and too many people are choosing not to work. Others claim that these programs are not generous enough and that employers should be offering better wages if they can’t attract workers: to which employers reply that higher wages mean higher prices, fewer options for consumers, less business and less jobs.

Changes in policies about temporary foreign workers (TFW) may have been a factor in the need for a job fair. Jobs considered low status and low pay in Canada are highly sought after by people from poorer parts of the world. Canada has benefitted from TFW, enjoying goods and services which Canadian workers are not providing. However, some employers have abused the program with substandard wages and working conditions. Rather than having more comprehensive enforcement of our labour standards, access to TFW has been reduced. This was also supposed to result in more work for unemployed Canadians, but this does not appear to be happening.

Policy changes may not come quickly or at all, so what can companies like McDonald’s do to meet their staffing needs now?

First, they can do a better job of retaining their current workers and thus have fewer positions to fill. There are many reasons people leave a job, but a bad boss is right at the top of the list. Giving first line supervisors the training and tools to be good bosses will make work places more attractive for present workers. They will be more likely to stay and even to recommend jobs to friends and family.

Second, the ‘McJob’ image is in serious need of improvement. Opportunities for promotion need publicity. Stories about people who started work at McDonald’s and now have successful careers, whether in the company or outside, would help. Since one in three Canadians have worked in a restaurant, such people should not be too hard to find.

A third option is higher wages. Basic economics teaches us that when the price of anything goes up, demand for it goes down. If workers are more expensive, McDonald’s and other companies will not hire as many. Capital in the form of technology and automation can and will be used to replace higher cost workers. Maybe fewer and better jobs is the future that we want.