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Your workers are (probably) skittish

Constant worry about losing jobs hurts bottom line, overall economy – but there’s light at the end of the tunnel

By Todd Humber

Canada’s workforce is skittish.

I don’t need surveys and statistics to tell me this. I only need to talk to colleagues, friends, family and neighbours to confirm that almost nobody — at least outside a handful in the public sector — feels they really have much job security.

Which is kind of odd, because I do have surveys and statistics that tell me most people shouldn’t feel skittish. The unemployment rate is higher than we’d like — at 7.2 per cent — but that figure is hardly bad from a historical perspective.

In some areas of the country — I’m looking at you Saskatchewan (four per cent) and Alberta (4.4 per cent) — the labour force is running at full capacity. Once you drop into that four per cent range, you’re really looking at full employment. There simply aren’t many people hunting for jobs in the Prairies.

One of the cover stories in the upcoming June 17 issue of Canadian HR Reporter confirms that theory. It looks at how much trouble the oil and gas sector is having in recruiting workers despite an average salary in excess of $125,000.

Demographics in employees’ favour

There’s also the demographic time bomb. It’s been two years since the first wave of baby boomers started turning 65.

The elimination of mandatory retirement and the Great Recession may have delayed retirement by some of the older boomers, but the writing is on the wall. A lot of positions in a lot of different professions are going to have vacancies in the next decade.

And since middle management has been gutted by years of cost-trimming, workers with experience managing teams should be able to write their own tickets.

Employers, on the other hand, need to keep this long view in mind: You may not have trouble recruiting and retaining today, but don’t be lulled into a false sense of security.

So why the employee anxiety?

Given that unemployment isn’t historically bad and that the fuse on the demographic time bomb continues to burn, why are employees so nervous about their futures?

It can be summed up in one word: Outsourcing.

Outsourcing may play well in the boardroom and on Bay Street, but it wrecks havocs with Canadian workers’ (and consumers’) psyche. When word leaked that RBC was outsourcing less than 50 jobs, the nation went into an uproar.

But these transactions are extremely common — RBC’s move was a drop in the bucket, and plenty of extremely profitable firms have jumped on the low-cost labour bandwagon.

For decades, young Canadians have been told to go into knowledge work because the low-skill high-paid jobs that used to propagate — especially in Ontario’s manufacturing heartland — would disappear to low-wage jurisdictions.

So Canadians went to university and college, and loaded up on computer science and engineering degrees. And that was good advice, as manufacturing jobs indeed flowed overseas to the lowest bidder.

But technology has advanced so far that the work of well-educated Canadians can also be done overseas in developing nations at a cheaper rate by workers who are just as, if not more, educated than their North American counterparts.

So workers look around and see not only that manufacturing jobs are disappearing, but knowledge workers are also being escorted out of the building. (And there’s even software out there that can write a basic news story, but we won’t discuss that one here.)

The only jobs that feel safe are the ones where you physically need to be in Canada to do the work

You can’t pump oil out of the ground in Alberta from China.

You can’t install a furnace in Vancouver or repair an elevator in Toronto from India.

You can’t administer medication at a nursing home in Halifax from the Philippines.

The media also shoulders some of the blame for worker anxiety along with outsourcing. The 24-hour news cycle means bad economic news gets more than its fair share of play.

This is all bad news for employers. Skittish employees are not engaged employees. In the June 17 issue, we also feature an article about sliding employee engagement.

"Pay freezes, benefit cuts and layoffs are still at the forefront of many employees' thinking," found the 2013 Trends in Global Employee Engagement report from Aon Hewitt. "The continued high rates of unemployment, lack of hiring and extended hiring cycles for open positions create further stress and uncertainty for employees, making it difficult to achieve or maintain healthy levels of engagement."

The end result is shrinking consumer confidence. Workers who aren’t feeling secure about their jobs simply won’t spend. Canadian workers react to this doom-and-gloom by hoarding their reserves for a rainy day, which only serves to feed the storm.

When revenues plummet as consumers shy away, employers trim costs. When employers trim costs, employees shy away even more. It’s not a good cycle.

Employees, and reactionary employers whose first response to a one-quarter revenue decline is to slash costs, need to take a deep breath. Things are improving, and the long-term future — by all forecasts — looks pretty good.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter and its family of publications, including Canadian Employment Law Today, Canadian Labour Reporter, Canadian Payroll Reporter, Canadian Safety Reporter, Canadian Occupational Safety magazine and Canadian Employer. He can be reached at or visit for more information.

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Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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