It should be good news. Canada now has the lowest unemployment rate ever. Certainly, a high unemployment rate is bad news. When the rate hits double digits with one in 10 out of work, the economy is in trouble and Canadian workers – and politicians – become fearful about getting and keeping a job.
But now, a record low unemployment rate of less than five per cent is not generating jubilation. For the first time in living memory, there are now more job vacancies than people to fill them, but workers are not stepping up to fill them. There are at least three reasons why.
- Baby boomers
Baby boomers have been a dominant part of the population since they first appeared in the 1940s and started entering the labour force in the 1960s. Many have already retired. Now the youngest boomers are close to retirement age and, with help from the pandemic and its lockdowns, many have discovered that it is possible and maybe even desirable to live without working for pay.
Though the number of openings is greater than the number of job seekers, not all job hunters are able and willing to fill those jobs. Some jobs require very specific skills, training and experience. Others may offer wages, working conditions or locations that are not sufficiently appealing to the unemployed.
- Freedom to choose
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In an earlier column on homelessness, we learned that lacking family, health or a job can lead to destitution. The other side of that coin is that when people have their health, a stable family situation, possibly with other earners and maybe additional resources, they can afford to be very picky about what job to take.
Workers may now have the luxury of choice in a high vacancy job market. For employers, a tight labour market is an additional challenge to running a business profitably or at all. Even with the product, the capital and the customers, nothing comes together without the people to make it happen.
Wages and working conditions can only be improved up to a point. Beyond that, a business cannot afford to operate. We are all aware of retail and other neighbourhood businesses that are no longer there.
Although we all benefit when it is easier to get and keep work, all of us are hurt when there are fewer shops, restaurants and services from haircuts to surgeries to meet our needs. In establishments that do manage to remain open, staff are fewer and less qualified. Service is slower, and the helpful information and advice that we have come to expect are often lacking.
While it is tempting to avoid patronizing any establishment with a Help Wanted or We are Hiring sign, so many businesses are sporting these. Finding a restaurant that is fully staffed is almost impossible.
One professional service business had a different sign on display. It said Be Kind to our Hard Working Staff. Apart from the signage, customers become aware of staff shortages when they lead to delays and errors. The temptation is to take our frustrations out on existing staff even though they are working at 150 per cent capacity in jobs for which they lack sufficient training or experience.
Customer service jobs have always been hard to fill. They offered low pay, irregular hours and little status. Add to that the increased likelihood of being abused by angry customers when other jobs are available. People who have worked in this sector tell me they are now avoiding client-facing jobs at all costs. No wonder there are vacancies.
A low unemployment rate means that human resources – people – are now scarce and precious. If we want the goods and especially the services that people provide, we should treat them like the valuable assets they are.
Dr. Roslyn Kunin is a public speaker, consulting economist and senior fellow of the Canada West Foundation.
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