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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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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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