Unskilled workers in Canada will be chasing fewer positions in coming decade as good jobs go begging, says ex-head of Toronto's Seneca College
By Elizabeth Church — The Globe and Mail – Feb. 3, 2010
An economy with rising unemployment and good jobs going begging: That's the paradox one veteran academic leader sees looming without a shift in attitude toward higher education and an increase in skilled workers.
The twin trends of an aging population and the growing demands for knowledge workers will create a mismatch between workers and jobs, predicts Rick Miner, the past president of Toronto's Seneca College and a former management professor.
The upshot will be an expanding pool of unskilled workers looking for jobs and an even larger number of companies that cannot find the workers they require, he says. The labour shortfall could leave more than one million jobs in Ontario alone unfilled in the coming decade, he forecasts, and likely will play out in a similar manner across Canada and the United States.
"Unless we take decisive action, our economic future and social fabric will be in jeopardy," warned Mr. Miner, who will deliver his grim prognosis in a speech to a Bay Street audience Wednesday.
At Bruce Power, which operates a nuclear power facility on the shores of Lake Huron, the hunt for skilled workers is already on. The company is working with colleges and universities to increase the supply of engineers and technicians with nuclear expertise, and has tapped other people let go from the auto industry to fill posts in areas such as supply management.
"There has been a real pinch in the supply of experienced people," said Murray Elston, a former provincial cabinet minister who now heads the company's corporate affairs division. Many workers were given early retirement packages in the 1990s when the industry was shrinking, he says. That has forced the company to look beyond traditional sources of workers to fill positions as it expands.
"It's easy to talk about the need for skilled workers, but it's very difficult to look at the economy and identify exactly what the needed skill set will be," he said.
Indeed, Mr. Miner says he is not about to place any bets on where the looming skill shortages will develop. "We have never been good at predicting the future and what the new jobs are," he said.
And he says there is no single solution to the problem. Getting more young people to go to college and university will help, but action is also needed to better use the skills of new Canadians and encourage older workers to stay at their jobs.
"This is not a problem that is going to disappear," he said in an interview. "This has been coming at us for some time, but now the brink is not that far away."
Others are not convinced such a skills shortage will develop, but say averting the crisis will take time and money.
Don Drummond, chief economist at Toronto-Dominion Bank, says companies that can't find workers will take action, such as sending jobs elsewhere or offering higher wages to attract workers and keep older employees from retiring.
"Will there be a huge shortage of labour in 2020? I would say no. But there will be costs," he said.
Mr. Drummond and Mr. Miner both worked on a national labour-market study earlier this year, and Mr. Miner consulted him on this latest study. "I think the problem is real," Mr. Drummond said, "but I think there are automatic processes that will address it."
Mr. Miner, who has held senior posts at the University of New Brunswick and St. Mary's University, is not a stranger to controversy. A report he co-authored in 2007 on reforms to postsecondary education in New Brunswick caused a public backlash for its recommendation to amalgamate some university campuses with local colleges.
This new report, called People without Jobs, Jobs without People, Ontario's Labour Market Future, was done with the endorsement of Colleges Ontario but was sparked by personal interest, he said.
"Some people were talking about demographic change, others were talking about the growing skills gap in the knowledge economy, but nobody was putting these two trends together," he said.
His predictions are based on numbers from the federal government, Ontario's Ministry of Finance, and recent U.S. studies.
Government will have to play a central part in solving the coming crisis, he said, but it cannot be expected to do it alone. Today's address, he said, is aimed at making everyone aware of their role in developing a solution. "I hope when people walk out they will say this is a problem that is going to affect me. What can I do about it?"