Plenty of reason to be optimistic (Editor's notes)

Reasons to be hopeful as 2014 finds its groove
By Todd Humber
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/10/2014

By most accounts, 2014 is off to a rocky start. I can’t make heads or tails of this job market, one that started to burn bright in the latter half of 2013 before the bottom unexpectedly fell out in December.

One where employers are struggling to find talent, yet scores of professionals can’t find work. At the recent Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) conference in Toronto, I had the opportunity to hear about both ends of the spectrum.

One colleague, fresh back from a trip to the oil sands in Fort McMurray, Alta., spoke of waiting 90 minutes to get breakfast at his hotel because it simply couldn’t find enough staff to work the grills and wait the tables.

Contrast that to conversations with at least a dozen unemployed HR professionals in Toronto — some seasoned, others fresh-faced recent graduates — who couldn’t find any work after months and months of searching. Their frustration was palpable, and some of the students were at their breaking points, questioning why they had bothered to pursue a career in HR.

But there’s always reason for hope, right? I’ve always been a glass-is-half-full type, so I take solace in one of our cover stories and thank the HRPA conference for putting everything into perspective with an inspirational closing keynote from astronaut Chris Hadfield.

First, the economy. Unemployment is trending downward, and that’s good, right? But lower unemployment rates are being fuelled in part by people simply giving up on looking for work, rather than actual job creation — that’s not so good.

Job numbers from Statistics Canada had been looking pretty good in the latter half of 2013, but then the bottom fell out in December with a loss of 46,000 jobs. The unemployment rate surprisingly jumped from 6.9 per cent to 7.2 per cent.

Those are all pretty negative harbingers, even for HR professionals and employers whose recruiting efforts are made a lot easier by weak economies. Sure, a sour economy makes it easier to hire — but it also makes it very tough to grow the business.

But you don’t have to look any further than this issue’s cover story to see why I’m hopeful. (See “’Steady’ hiring climate for new year,” page 1.) In that story, senior editor Sarah Dobson looks at four different surveys that have come to pretty much the same conclusion — 2014 will be a pretty good year, overall, for the job market in Canada. Many companies say they’re in a better financial position and expect to add to their payrolls.

The financial picture in the United States is also improving — something that can only be positive for a nation that’s “sleeping next to an elephant,” as former prime minster Pierre Trudeau famously said.

And now to Chris Hadfield. The Canadian spaceman — who has been dubbed the most famous astronaut since Neil Armstrong — closed the HRPA conference with an inspiring and passionate speech about his career and his recent time onboard the International Space Station.

It wasn’t packed with HR references or management advice but I walked out of that session with a healthy dose of perception, delivered by a speaker who has seen the world from a vantage point only a handful of others have enjoyed. He talked about how fragile the Earth was, showing us a photo he took of Mount Aetna erupting in February 2013.

He compared the eruption, and all of the planet, to a pot of porridge that has been simmering on the back of an oven for a long time. The surface of the Earth is like the thin film that develops on top of the porridge, while underneath it’s scorching hot and eventually little burps come out.

Gazing from the space station down to Earth, Hadfield was able to see how thin the inhabitable space for humans really is — just a couple of kilometres of atmosphere and a bit of soil — and how fragile life really is.

We’re essentially bacteria growing under a sink, he said, and all it would take to get rid of us is for someone to come along with some Javex and a sponge.

Hadfield also waved the flag, talking about how lucky we are to live in Canada — and if we didn’t think so, try living somewhere else for 26 years, as he has done. Your perception will change. There are few places with the stability and security Canadians take for granted, he said.

He talked about the importance of sweating the small stuff, despite many self-help books telling us otherwise. Sweating the small stuff is critical for astronauts — think of the O-ring that brought down the Challenger space shuttle in 1987 or the piece of foam that damaged the Columbia, leading to its disintegration on re-entry in 2003.

“We’ve learned the hardest way possible just how much little things matter,” Hadfield wrote in his book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.

In business, as in space, the small things do matter. If we all had Hadfield’s passion and enthusiasm for work, there would be no end to what we could accomplish. That’s one of the core messages I took from his speech — to have a real passion for the work I do, but to also take some time to marvel at the world and remember that we’re all in this together.

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