Last week, I received an email that called me “stupid” and wondered if I was a “communist” because I had written about the opportunity inherent in the tens of trillions of dollars that have accumulated in private funds devoted to reversing climate change.
The author of the email appeared to see sustainable finance as a Trojan horse that would destroy the oil and gas industry. He asked: Without oil, how were Canadians supposed to make a living? “Look at what propaganda you are selling,” the emailer said.
No serious person talks about ending oil and gas production anytime soon. The column in question actually emphasized how sustainable finance could be used to extend the life of the oilsands by funding innovation that could reduce emissions. But let’s think about the notion that without oil there is no other way for Canadians to make a living.
The sentiment that the economy would tumble into a depression if not for few sacred industries is widely held. Someone attached to the General Motors Co. plant in Oshawa, Ont. could have written a similar email. Or a real-estate broker in Vancouver. Or a dairy farmer from just about anywhere. All of those industries face uncertain futures for one reason or another, and it’s hard to imagine a future in which they aren’t expanding the terms of trade or pumping up local wealth.
Canada’s economy has its flaws, and one of them is this notion that its success is contingent on any one group of companies. The economy is more dynamic than that. In the abstract, there are hundreds of thousands of ways to make a living at the moment, at least according to Statistics Canada’s latest quarterly report on job vacancies, an under-appreciated gauge of the economy’s health.
StatCan counted 506,000 unfilled positions in the first quarter, a 10 per cent increase from the same period a year earlier and the most in any first quarter since the agency started publishing these data in 2015. So there is more evidence that the national labour market really is as hot as some of the too-good-to-true data from recent months suggest. “It’s a useful gauge of employer sentiment,” as actual job listings are more trustworthy than sentiment surveys, said Brendon Bernard, economist at Indeed Canada, a web-based hiring site. “It shows the strength of the labour market.”
… the highly educated advisers of policymakers and executives assume everyone is as keen to leave home as they were
The vacancy numbers also expose all kinds of structural flaws that restrain the labour market from reaching even more impressive heights.
Unfilled positions in Quebec increased by about 21,000, by about 12,400 in Ontario and by about 9,300 in British Columbia; openings decreased from the first quarter of 2018 in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
That condition has existed for a while, suggesting that something is blocking Westerners from seeking out opportunities in central Canada or B.C. The numbers appear to suggest that we have a mobility problem, an issue that a lot of policy thinkers take for granted.
Free-market types assume an unemployed person will seek out a job, no matter what. And the highly educated advisers of policymakers and executives assume everyone is as keen to leave home as they were when they set out to collect degrees and passport stamps.
But academics, while attempting to explain the rise of populism, have discovered that some of us are more committed to our communities than previously imagined. The economies of Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal are booming — and they have the house prices to prove it. That means a job in any of those places is only attractive to someone from Saskatchewan if it pays enough to offset the cost-of-living shock. And even then, that person might feel better off in a community where he or she can rely on friends and family for support.
Four of the 10 economic regions with the fastest-growing job vacancy rates are in Quebec, including the Mauricie, where openings increased by almost 90 per cent from the first quarter of 2018. But you’d have to be comfortable in French — or willing to learn — to live happily in any of them, and you’d be at the back of the province’s notoriously long line for a family doctor. If you are a unilingual Albertan, you might prefer to take your chances on landing a job in Calgary or Edmonton, which are rarer, but still relatively well paid.
There also is a skills gap. The number of openings in health care and social assistance increased by 19 per cent from the first quarter of 2018, to 61,860 unfilled positions, according to StatCan. The number of postings by companies in professional, scientific and technical services surged 28 per cent to almost 42,000.
Hospitals and clinics might consider higher wages: they were offering an average of $23.70 per hour in the first quarter, 10 cents an hour more than a year earlier. Tech companies appear to accept that talent is at a premium, however; unfilled positions in that industry come with average hourly pay of $30.10, on par with oil-and-gas and four per cent higher than a year earlier.
Companies should probably also stop waiting for someone else to train the workers they need. In April, Montreal-based Aldo Group, which sells shoes and accessories in about 100 countries, announced that it would back a course in shoe design at Lasalle College. “We’re trying to get ahead of a problem,” David Bensadoun, the company’s chief executive, told me in an interview at the time. “There wasn’t a critical mass” of talent, he said, and “teaching on the job is hard.”
There are lots of ways for Canadians to make a living. The risk is we don’t do enough collectively to ensure all those empty positions get filled.
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