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Apr 29, 2014

Are the kids alright?

Fury over temporary foreign workers in fast food jobs brings out the curmudgeon in me

By Todd Humber

Peel back all the controversy over the temporary foreign worker program, and there’s one question left that lingers: “Why are fast-food restaurants, and the restaurant industry is general, having to turn to foreign workers?”

We’ve all seen the headlines about youth unemployment in Canada — we report on the numbers all the time in Canadian HR Reporter. In March, unemployment sat at 13.6 per cent for workers age 15 to 24, nearly twice the national average of 6.9 per cent.

Youth and the fast-food industry are synonymous. And, not to sound like an old curmudgeon, but plenty of my friends had their first jobs in the fast food industry. It was almost a rite of passage to work at McDonald’s or Burger King as a teen.

My first job, when I was 14, was working as a dishwasher Tai Yuen Palace, a Chinese restaurant in Tecumseh, Ont., for the princely sum of $3.90 per hour — which was minimum wage at the time. I only spent about 30 minutes a night actually washing dishes. The rest of my time was spent cleaning ovens, emptying the grease pit (about the grossest thing I have ever done), tending the vegetable garden behind the restaurant, doing some food prep and even help clean out the basement of the owner’s house.

It was far from a dream job, but it taught me a lot including the value of a dollar and the importance of doing a job properly. It also taught me a couple of things about occupational health and safety — plenty of the tasks I did wouldn’t exactly be kosher with OHS laws. That wasn’t a good thing but, thankfully, we seem to be educating this generation a little bit better about their rights.

So how is it, with youth unemployment stuck in the double digits, that fast-food joints and other restaurants are having trouble finding workers?

It raises an uncomfortable question: Is it possible that young workers, particularly high school students, think they’re above working at McDonald’s? That a minimum wage restaurant industry gig isn’t worth their time?

That’s certainly the impression you get from some in the industry. In an interview with the Vancouver Sun, Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), pointed the finger at a couple of areas. One, there are fewer young people as a percentage of the overall population than there was in the past. Fair point.

Also, young Canadians are more educated than ever.

“Young people are saying ‘I just spent $40,000 on a fine arts degree, I don’t want to go work at a local pizza place,” said Kelly. “(Temporary foreign workers) are often very willing to take the shifts Canadians don’t want to work.”

But the most troubling culprit Kelly identified is that Canadian workers just aren’t reliable.

“What I’m hearing from business owners is often that one out of every five (local) applicants will show up (for work). Often, that one person may work one week and then not show up for the next shift, and not even call or let them know what’s going on,” he said. “Or they will hire an employee who says they are available the first week but need two weeks off in summer and need every second Tuesday off, or don’t want to work weekend. Just because someone says they are looking for work doesn’t mean they are available to work.”

That’s a pretty unflattering picture of Canadians.

Nobody is saying these jobs are glamorous. I hated pretty much every minute I spent working at the Chinese restaurant. When I landed a better gig, at a racquetball club, I quit my restaurant job — but I handed it off to a buddy from my high school. There was no shortage of people who wanted that job, despite the crappy pay and working conditions.

There’s no doubt the temporary foreign worker program is critical to Canada. With some skill sets, we simply don’t have enough Canadian workers trained. And there are areas — I’m looking at you, Alberta — where there simply aren’t enough workers period. But that’s the exception, not the norm.

Using temporary foreign workers in restaurants in labour markets like Fort McMurray, Alta. — where there simply aren’t enough people to go around — makes sense. But having foreign workers flip burgers in places like Victoria is concerning.

So call me a curmudgeon. I may not be yelling at kids to get off my lawn (at least not yet), but I am a little concerned for the next generation of workers. If Canadian youth don’t go through this rite of passage, if they think these jobs are beneath them, just what kind of work ethic and productivity are employers going to be getting from them when they finally find a job they think is worth their time?

I don’t know the answer to that question. Frankly, it may mean nothing. But, from an HR perspective, it seems worth asking: Are the kids alright?

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Interesting Perspective
Tuesday, April 29, 2014 9:33:00 PM by Brian Kreissl
Hi Todd:

While my blog post this week also dealt with the same issue, I tackled it from a very different angle. However, I would have to say I agree with most of what you are saying too. There is at least a perception that young Canadian workers are unreliable and don't want to work.

However, in many ways I actually blame helicopter parents nowadays, who seem to think their little dears are too good for part-time jobs for some reason. I wrote about this in a previous post at In the comments below that blog I actually cited a study that found teenagers who hold part-time jobs are more likely to be successful later in life.

However, I do personally know a teenager who recently applied at many places for a part-time job. No one gave him a chance until his mother approached a grocery store manager and asked him what it takes to get a job there. Soon after, her son got an interview and landed a part-time job at that store.

So I don't think all of the blame can be placed on young people. It is very hard to get that all-important first job, even when we're talking about a part-time minimum wage job stocking shelves or flipping burgers. There are many decent, responsible kids out there who would love to work, but no one is willing to give them a chance due to stereotypes about "kids these days" and the catch-22 situation of "no job, no experience."

If we are going to tackle the youth unemployment crisis in this country, we need to deal with the problem from both sides by tackling stereotypes among employers and doing a better job of instilling a work ethic in young people, helping them learn the lesson that there is no shame in honest work, and that everyone has to start somewhere.
Are the kids alright?
Tuesday, April 29, 2014 4:11:00 PM by Angelo Pesce
I wouldn't be too concerned about the youth of today becoming bad workers based on what Mr. Kelly has to say. There is another way to look at why Canadian youth appears to be unreliable. Perhaps like you they have learned that minimum wage job are often dirty, unpleasant and even hazardous and they are not willing to be manipulated, intimidated and generally made to work in bad situations. Whereas the powerless temporary foreign workers are willing to do all those things because they really have no choice. I don't buy for a moment that our youth have suddenly become lazy, good for nothing employees. Before I buy into that, I will need proof that these employers provide working conditions that respect the law and provide a minimum of a decent workplace.
Are the kids just smart?
Tuesday, April 29, 2014 3:51:00 PM
Maybe the kids are actually listening to their parents and guidance counselors, and looking for work they find meaningful and which gives them skills more in line with their long term career goals. Or maybe the wages are simply not sufficient to compensate for the boring work, exploitive bosses and cranky customers?