Last week, 26,000 job hunters signalled a desperate search for meaningful jobs
LOOKING FOR WORK
Last week, 26,000 job hunters signalled a desperate search for meaningful jobs
SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER
The star workers of a modem auto assembly line are not human. They are machines. Strong robotic arms tirelessly swing body panels into position.Relentless robot fingers dart out to weld joints, never missing, never flailing helplessly in the empty air. And the machines are almost as smart as they are brawny. Computers run the assembly line, making sure that at each of the hundreds of stops, precisely the right parts arrive just in time to meet up with the auto for which they are intended as it wends its way to the end of the line. Guided by sophisticated software programs, the line turns out a red four-door automatic sedan, followed by a blue two-door standard hatchback, followed by a luxury burgundy model loaded with every option, without mixing up a single screw.
But the machines, of course, cannot do everything. People are still needed for jobs that require mental or physical flexibility. It is a person, for instance, who crawls awkwardly into each partially assembled vehicle to wrestle the carpet into place. But the idea of working alongside metal co-workers did not deter 26,000 men and women who waited for hours in below-average January temperatures to apply for jobs at General Motors of Canada Ltd.’s plant in Pickering, Ont., last week. The appeal of the GM jobs was simple: $45,000 a year plus benefits, and whatever job security that may come from working for the world’s largest industrial corporation.
The sight of Canadians so desperate for a decent job that they were willing to spend a winter night outside in a lineup is a stark and sobering demonstration of the nation’s anxiety about jobs. Pollster Allan Gregg, who, as president of Decima Research Ltd. in Toronto has been monitoring the hopes and fears of the Canadian public for the past 15 years, says that despite all the other issues on the national political agenda in Canada over the past decade, it is unemployment that consistently preoccupies Canadians. “We’ve never seen fewer than 45 per cent of the Canadians we survey saying that they are at least somewhat concerned that they or their family’s main breadwinner could lose their job,” said Gregg. “It is the consistent, enduring, ongoing issue that has defined the past 10 years.”
For Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington and author of the new book The End of Work, the GM lineup was the most highly visible evidence yet of his theory that new technologies are replacing workers so quickly that modern economies will soon be able to run smoothly using the labor of only a fraction of their citizens. “I was in Chicago this week and everyone was talking about the GM lineup,” said Rifkin. “It frightens people. But it’s just the beginning. The jobs are gone and they’re not coming back.” Added Rifkin: “We’re moving into what I call the Third Industrial Revolution, during which we will see the eventual phaseout of mass labor in the production of goods and services.”
But if Rifkin’s long-range perspective is bleak, the near-term view is somewhat more promising. In 1994, the Canadian economy ended its so-called jobless recovery and created an impressive 362,000 jobs, bringing the total number of Canadians with jobs to 12.8 million people. That was the best job-creation performance since 1987, but it still leaves 1.3 million Canadians officially unemployed. In addition, economists estimate that there are hundreds of thousands of other discouraged workers who would return to the labor force—if job prospects improve. For 1995, the forecasts for Canada’s economic growth are still optimistic, although slightly less rosy than in 1994. The economy is continuing to recover from the recession and that is creating jobs at a faster pace than many economists had initially predicted. However, interest rates are continuing to rise in the United States and Canada, a trend that will almost certainly slow the rate of economic growth this year. The economy grew by about 4.5 per cent last year, but economic projections are now calling for growth of about 3.5 per cent in 1995. And if economic growth falters, job growth will quickly trail off.
Even in an environment of relatively strong economic growth, however, it is unlikely that the pressures of Canada’s unemployment problem will be entirely relieved. Economists are increasingly perplexed by the gap between Canadian and U.S. unemployment rates. The unemployment rate in Canada is now at 9.6 per cent, four percentage points higher than the 5.6-per-cent rate in the United States. Michael McCracken, an economist with the independent forecasting agency Informetrica Ltd. in Ottawa, notes that in the 1970s the situation was reversed and Canada had lower unemployment rates. But, he explains, “We went into a deeper recession in 19801982 and we had a much more restrictive monetary policy. It has essentially been a choice the Bank of Canada and the finance ministry have made. They have sacrificed jobs to slow inflation.” Other economists have speculated, however, that Canada’s more generous unemployment insurance benefits have buoyed Canadian unemployment rates by reducing the incentive for those without jobs to look for work.
Whatever the explanation, it foreshadows another very traumatic experience if the Canadian economy is pushed into another downturn by interest-rate hikes. Said Rifkin: “Imagine how people are going to respond to a new round of job losses when the next recession begins in 1995 or 1996 and they haven’t had a chance to recover from the last round.”
The solution most often put forward to address the problem of the disappearance of semiskilled, well-paid jobs—like those on the GM assembly line—is for all workers to improve their level of education. By upgrading skills, the argument goes, workers will be able to find new positions in the economy of the computerized Information Age. Even in the United States, where the official unemployment rate is much lower than Canada’s, Labor Secretary Robert Reich sees an increasingly troubling divide in society between those who have studied at college or have advanced job training and those who have not. “The right education and skills don’t guarantee a good job in the new economy,” said Reich last week, “but they are a prerequisite.”
In Canada, at first glance, the argument appears to be convincing. Economist Lloyd Atkinson, an investment counsellor with M. T. Associates Inc. in Toronto, points out that during the recession, from 1991 to 1993, the domestic economy lost 189,000 jobs. But during that period, employment among those with a college degree rose by 308,000—a 17-per-cent increase over three years. For those who did not finish high school, job losses totalled 651,000—a 28-per-cent drop. Said Atkinson: “Almost 30 per cent of kids are dropping out of high school. Good God! That’s like condemning them to life on the dole.”
According to the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association, the minimum requirement for an assembly-line worker will soon be one year of college as well as a knowledge of computers. “An assembly-line worker does not stand around with a monkey wrench anymore,” Atkinson said. “He provides instructions to robots through a keyboard and if something goes wrong, he’ll have to consult a manual.”
WHERE THE JOBS ARE
New jobs created in 1994 Manufacturing +55,000 Construction +52,000 Retailing +39,000 Computing industries +36,000 Hotel, restaurant, +33,000 entertainment services
WHERE THE JOBS ARE NOT
Jobs eliminated in 1994 Agriculture -27,000 Health services -26,000 Public administration -25,000 Real estate -20,000 Chemical manufacturing -10,000
CALCULATED ON AN ANNUAL AVERAGE BASIS
Many Canadians are already develop ing an enthusiasm for education that seems to mirror their concern about jobs. Although the lineup was shorter-and did not attract the same media attention as GM's-200 parents waited for several hours last week in suburban Toronto to register their children at a so-called alter native high school run by the Scarbor ough Board of Education. The R H. King Academy offers an enriched academic program that requires students to study computer science and at least one other technical subject Wilma Kwinter, an Eng lish teacher there, draws a direct connec tion between concern about unemploy ment and the high demand for admission to the school. "Maybe people feel that if they line up for the right high school,” says Kwinter, “they won’t have to line up for a factory job when they are 30.”
But Rifkin argues that education and retraining are not the panaceas that some believe. In the future, he concedes, the elite workers will be highly educated specialists. But he also warns that education is only a solution for a relatively small portion of the workforce. The real issue, he says, is that machines are reducing the overall number of jobs. And although new jobs are being created, they are not being produced in the mass numbers that will be needed to fully employ the population. “Regardless of how much retraining you do, within 30 years the global marketplace will not require more than 20 per cent of the population to operate. What are the other 80 per cent going to do?”
Rifkin cited the agriculture industry, the auto industry and the steel industry as sectors where the introduction of sophisticated technology has boosted productivity while requiring only a fraction of the former number of workers. The number of farmers has fallen drastically in the past century but their output has skyrocketed.
In 1850, a farmer produced enough to feed four people; now a farmer produces enough to feed 78. The trend is similar in the steel industry. Statistics Canada says that the number of people employed in steel production has fallen to 33,300 from 36,500 people in 1960, while the level of crude steel production has almost tripled to 15.6 million tons a year. ‘We said that it was going to be labor saving,” said Rifkin. “And that’s just what it’s doing—it’s saving labor, it’s replacing labor. We’re only in the early stages, but, soon, we will not need mass labor any more.”
But in contrast to the experience of the past, the workers displaced by the information revolution will not simply move on to the next industry—as farmers did to manufacturing during the last century—to find jobs.
As the problem of underemployment grows, it is forcing its way onto the political agenda of both Canada and the United States— even if politicians are reluctant to tackle it. The U.S. voters’ decision to oust the Democratic Party and return the Republicans may be directly connected to concerns about employment. “It turns out that people voted because of job insecurity,” said Rifkin, “even though no one was speaking to it politically.”
In Canada, the situation is the same. Gregg, who was a key strategist in the last Conservative federal election campaign, says that, in general, politicians do not devote as much energy to unemployment as the public would like. Said Gregg: “I think that part of the frustration of the population with their leaders is that their priority on employment has never been consistently reflected back by the political leadership.” As a result of that alienation, there are signs that Canadian and American societies are getting meaner—and grimmer. McCracken, who was a consultant for the federal Advisory Group on Working Time and the Distribution of Work, says that the committee heard stories of working parents who were forced to leave their jobs to attend to emergencies involving their children, only to return to work the next day and find that they had been fired. ‘We heard those stories time and again,” said McCracken. “It was chilling.” Just as chilling as 26,000 people lining up for jobs that may never materialize.
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