The biggest labour boom in 50 years has made job anxiety a thing of the past
Tales of employer desperation are many and varied these days, especially in the alternative reality of Alberta’s labour market. But few cases illustrate the situation as well as that of Gary Reber, an amiable ex-con who now happily swings a hammer on a downtown Edmonton construction site. Two years ago, Reber was on the uphill side of a 672-year prison sentence—the outcome of a disastrous, if uncharacteristic, 2003 altercation with a couple of police officers. A money manager with a few addiction problems, he had been partying hard with buddies in his hometown of Leduc, Alta., and when the RCMP pulled them over, he says, he “freaked.” There was a melee, during which Reber overpowered the cop who was holding him. If that wasn’t
bad enough, he then hopped into the empty cruiser, threw it into gear and punched the gas. The car lurched forward, severely injuring one of the officers.
By the time he reached jail, Reber was a wreck: his wife had left him, he’d lost his kids, and his once-thriving career in the financial sector was over. “It was serious,” he says solemnly, “and I deserved everything I got.” But the modern economy is all about redemption, and Reber’s arrived in the form of a unique initiative co-funded by an Edmonton construction company that could only have happened in a red-hot economy.
Under the program, prisoners housed at a federal institution near Red Deer would receive three months of training, while Clark Builders, a construction company desperate for workers on job sites across Western Canada, gets to recruit from what is, quite literally, a captive labour pool. It sounded like a long shot, but proof that Clark’s gamble paid off now arrives for work each morning at the foot of a high-rise project on Edmonton’s north side.
After eight months on the job, Reber is supervising his own crew, training to become a crane rigger, and pulling down a respectable $18 an hour. “With overtime and everything else, I figure I’m making about $4,000 a month,” he says, grinning. “That’s not bad for a guy who just got out of jail.”
Not bad at all. And without diminishing Clark’s social progressiveness, there’s more at work here than altruistic outreach. For more than a generation, after all, the idea of employers seeking out, training and hiring workers was cause for acidic laughter among Gen-Xers, who imagined a decent job as something you fought for, or lucked into. Now the bosses are going so far as to sniff around federal prisons for a bit of skilled help. And Alberta isn’t the only place where the ground has shifted. If you’re lucky enough to be getting out of a university anywhere in the country in 2007, you’re about to enter a country-wide labour market virtually unrecognizable to your parents. The bank wants you, the phone company wants you, the oil company wants you, the hospital wants you. The RCMP, the municipality, the provincial government, the federal civil service—they all want you, too, and these are institutions accustomed to turning back all but the most lavishly overqualified candidates. To land that plum job, you no longer need to “know someone.” In many cases, you need only to be breathing and on
time for the interview.
It is, without stretching the point, the best of times— a happy confluence of tumbling birth rates, mass retirements and sustained economic growth. According to a report produced last month by the TD Financial Group, the number of health care and social service jobs has risen by nearly 250,000 in the last six years; the construction industry has hired 249,000; the education sector added 175,000. And while shortterm demand may be subject to caprice-a terrorist attack, say, or a softening U.S. economy—no one is predicting a reversion to the old order. “Alberta is the canary in the mine,” says Linda Duxbury, a professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business and one of the country’s leading experts on labour market trends. “We’ve got a dwindling supply of youth because of the revolution in fertility. The birth rate hasn’t been at replacement level since the 1960s, and even ifwe get Canadians to reproduce like rabbits—which is not going to happen—it won’t be enough. People don’t take a full-time job now until they’re 25.”
So sharp are the trend lines that one management consulting firm, Watson Wyatt Worldwide, predicts a labour shortage in Canada of one million by 2016, and three million by 2026. Maintaining the country’s historical growth in living standard of I.85 per cent annually will require raising productivity and opening the doors to far more immigrants. “The failure to adequately resolve this issue would have profound socio-economic consequences,” Wyatt cautions in a recent re-
THEIR PARENTS, WHO WERE DOWNSIZED IN THE ’80s AND '90s, NEVER GOT THE RESPECT THIS GENERATION CAN EXPECT
port, “such as stagnant economic growth and lower standards of living.”
Whether companies and governments will rise to these challenges is anyone’s guess, says Duxbury: a few executives and government mandarins cling to the idea that such trends run their course over five or 10 years. Most, however, understand that the demand for labour has tipped the balance between employers and prospective workers. “Employer branding,” a kind of shorthand for marketing yourself to the people you hope to hire, is the latest buzz-phrase in human resources. The message in these campaigns is a near-perfect contradiction of the employment gospel of the ’80s and ’90s, which held
THE SELL: Today’s grads have to be wooed
that workers shouldn’t expect to spend a full career with one employer. “I often tell my own story,” says Nancy Moulday, manager of recruitment for TD’s business banking and insurance units. “I’ve been with TD 19 years and I’m on my 13th job. I’m getting the opportunity to be challenged, to learn and grow and develop within one organization.” Of course, this assumes they’ve got a candidate’s attention to begin with, which is hardly a given. Babyboomers occupying senior HR positions face the unenviable task of crawling inside the mind of the average 23year-old. And while bucketloads of ink have been spilled on the mercurial priorities of the so-called Generation Y, the efforts thus far suggest something less than a full comprehension. Demographic profiles of today’s job candidate describe values that sound a lot like those of twentysomethings going back to the dawn of civilization (fickle! ingenious! trendy! passionate!). As a result, recruitment campaigns can be wildly off the mark: one pamphlet currently being distributed by the nickel giant Inco features a row of miners in silhouette underneath the slogan, “Wanted: Rock Stars.” Better, perhaps, than “Wanted: Youngsters Willing to Toil Anonymously Underground,” but you can practically hear the
snickers among the undergraduates they’re trying to hire.
So the familiar anxiety of the job hunt has been turned on its head over the past few years, leaving the companies to sweat. And nowhere is this desperation more visible than the annual career fair held within the quadrangle of colleges and universities around Waterloo, Ont.—a gathering where, in past decades, representatives might have spent their time explaining why they couldn’t hire you. This year, a record 240 institutional employers have flocked to the RIM Park arena complex outside Waterloo, spilling out of a cavernous convention hall and into an adjoining gymnasium for a shot at the 3,000-odd undergrads expected to drift past the booths. Both rooms are filled with a riot of easels and PowerPoint displays and tables cluttered with knick-knacks and gewgaws designed to snatch the gaze of sleep-deprived college seniors. Weston Bakeries is handing out loaves of Wonder Bread. Maple Leaf Foods is giving away pepperoni sticks.
Some employers use the same ham-fisted techniques as Inco to make their work sound exhilarating. The Canada Border Services Agency display features a small trove of nunchakus, brass knuckles and drug contraband seized from globe-trotting low-lifes. Nothing about standing for hours in a freezing highway kiosk. One student reports that barkers from the Ontario Racing Commission asked if he was “interested in horses.” At the other extreme is the Canadian Security Intelligence Agency, whose pitch could use a bit of soft-sell. The spy agency’s handouts explain that candidates must pass, in order: an application review, an information session, a suitability interview, a psychological assessment, a second language assessment, a national assessment panel, a security clearance, an executive committee interview and a final assessment. If you get through it all without throwing up your hands, congratulations, you can be a spook.
The more illuminating activity, however, occurs above the pitches for entry-level workers. Just off the GE Canada booth (one of the truly busy ones) stands Rebecca Baxter, a 23year-old from Bradford, Ont., who pretty much embodies the difficulties Canadian firms face trying to land top-rung talent. A self-described “keener” heading for a combined degree in science and business from the University of Waterloo, she recently won a provincial award for her co-op work as a securities trader. She has taken co-op assign-
ments as far abroad as Australia, and this winter she will represent Canadian students at a telecommunications conference in Hong Kong. Baxter already has interest from ScotiaBank and the drug maker Apotex, two places where she took co-op assignments, and she’s getting warm receptions from the multinationals present at this fair, like GE. “I don’t want to jinx anything,” she says, smiling. “But I think my prospects are pretty good.” The world, in short, is Baxter’s employment. She is clearly poised for a big payday on graduation. But the path to her heart is not entirely paved with gold. While she’s clearly enjoying the competition for her attention, what Baxter really wants is a single, long-term employer with whom she can grow. “I want opportunity to manage and take more responsibility,” she says. “I really want to im-
ONE PAMPHLET FROM NICKEL GIANT INCO FEATURES MINERS IN SILHOUETTE UNDER THE SLOGAN ‘WANTED: ROCK STARS’
prove a business and increase its value, and I’d like acknowledgement and recognition.” It’s a theme echoed throughout the day by other members of her formidable cohort. Jeff Noble, a 22-year-old commerce student from the University of Guelph, wants a job where the atmosphere is light but the progression plan is clear. “It’s about what they can offer to develop me, the projects I’ll be working on.” Nina Bagherizadeh, a fourthyear business student from Guelph’s satellite campus in Rexdale, Ont., loathes the idea of jumping from firm to firm. “I consider myself a loyal person to a company,” she says. “As long as I’m with an employer that appreciates me, why would I want to change?” These sentiments are enlightening, because they run counter to received wisdom about Generation Y—a crowd of youngsters supposedly allergic to workplace commitment because they are scarred from watching their parents “downsized” during the ’80s and ’90s. All true, says Karl Moore, a professor at McGill University’s faculty of management. “But these young people are logically living out life based on what they’ve experienced,” he says.
“Their common reaction to that is, boy, when I go to work, and when I have a family, I’m not going to do it like that.” With the strength of their numbers, Moore adds, they can demand the respect and fidelity from a boss their parents never could.
The implications of this are heartening for
anyone entering the workplace over the next decade or so. Of their own free will, employers are dangling conditions workers previously extracted only through strikes or painful negotiation: job security, educational upgrading, maternity top-up, paternity leave, sabbaticals, flexible hours. “There’s a whole new
school of thought among employers,” says Diane Wiesenthal, president of the Canadian Council of Human Resources Associations. “You don’t need to have people sitting at their desk, whiling away the hours. As long as you can deliver the results we expect, we’re prepared to be flexible on the other stuff.”
The question now is how long the gilded age will last. Not every employer can offer a stairway to wealth and power. Not every job is stimulating. “That,” says Moore, “is why they call it work.” Some economists figure the labour market will self-correct, slowing economy and the concomitant demand for manpower. In Alberta, for example, construction companies and oil sands developers have seen projects slowed due to skyrocketing wages and lack of bodies. But the conditions underlying those localized crises—demographic stagnation and economic growth—seem sure to prevail for decades to come, with the potential to lift the fortunes of Canadians across the country. “If you’re willing to move, you can find work,” says John DeGiacomo, manager of student placement at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont.
And if you’re not, well, the work may just find you—at your college, in your high school, in your home. Even, it turns out, in a federal penitentiary. M
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