The curious case of the disappearing worker bees

As the Ontario economy pulls out of the traces of pandemic restrictions, roaring on all cylinders, and surpassing pre-pandemic levels of employment and production by leaps and bounds, those economic challenges left over and neglected for decades have once again lifted their hoary heads.

Canada is sitting at below six percent unemployment, nearby Sudbury’s latest survey shows 5.7 percent, well up from the previous month’s 5.4 percent, but still well below the rate economists consider full employment in Canada in the modern era.

Long and loud are the lamentations of employers facing lost revenue due to the lack of employees and those of one particular political bent are quick to blame the federal government’s CERB payments for nearly all of the ills facing industry. “Nobody want to work,” is a familiar refrain in the coffee shops across the land—and again the CERB is fingered as the culprit. “It’s all Trudeau’s fault.” Well, if income supports provided by the federal government were really the culprit, that might well be true, as assistance from the provincial government (whose actual job it is, by the way) were negligible to nil.

Forgotten among the coffee table klatch is the simple fact that those same labour shortages were making themselves evident well before the current economic boom put its strains on the reins. In point of fact, the looming labour crisis has been heralded at just about every major gathering of political and decision makers at every level for more than the past two decades. Who among them was blind to that threatening Baby Boom bulge making its way up the aging ladder or deaf to those dire warnings that our economy would have to depend on an ever-smaller labour pool as the Boomers retired? Seems pretty much all of them, of every stripe and partisan flavour.

So now, here we are, nearing the end of that rainbow and there is little in the way of a pot of gold, unless one counts the belated realization by the current occupant of the premier’s office that higher minimum wages are actually a good thing for the economy—throw that in with the eleventh-hour conversion of Doug Ford to all things Green (except carbon taxes). Not that his predecessors get any leeway on this sorry mountain of missed chances, but the labour supply issue far predates his regime.

So now we are left playing catch-up, and if history serves to memory, the Conservative mindset is poorly prepared for the challenges ahead. Luckily, Premier Ford has shown some conversion away from populism and toward pragmatism (likely as a result of the realities of the pandemic) so we shall see how events policies progress going forward.

The plain truth is that Ontario needs bodies, lots and lots of bodies. Not necessarily able-bodied bodies, either. There are plenty of bodies to mine for workers out there. Some are developmentally challenged and only need a few, until now largely absent, supports to enable them to lead productive lives; others have been disadvantaged by historical isolation and neglect—among the most obvious being Indigenous youth. The Ontario North Plan released almost 20 years ago pointed out that more than 25 percent of Northern Ontario’s labour pool by now would come from First Nation communities and highlighted the need to provide better educational and social resources to better prepare those workers for the jobs of what was then tomorrow, but is now today.

Government inaction on these fronts has created a veritable tsunami of missed opportunities and any further dithering in the current labour drought will hobble our economy far beyond the present challenges and the resulting drop in productivity will add long-term fuel to inflationary pressures that will far outstrip those short term sparks coming from temporary income supports.

No matter what it does now, the province will be coming far too late to the game, but better late than never, so Premier Ford and company, get yourself onto the field and into the game.