The importance of work

My column today looks at the issue of work -specifically I make the case that we need more of it in New Brunswick.   Between the low employment rate, the high usage of EI, the lack of people working over the age of 65 (compared to the rest of Canada) and the high level of workforce absenteeism, we are way below a good level of work in New Brunswick (paid work – that is not to diminish volunteer or other non-paid work).

In my conversation with a local entrepreneur about this he felt that more people should make an effort to like their jobs.  Any job, in his mind, can be interesting and stimulating if you make it so.

I laughed a few years ago when Richard Florida suggested that service workers in Toronto were part of the ‘creative’ class.  I even joked about workers in the food court at the Eaton’s Centre – they represent the service sector – are they in meaningful jobs?

I am coming around to this point of view.  I’ll give you an example of why:

In my previous job we started to let people try the work for a few days in order to see if they were cut out for it.  It was pretty demanding and monotonous work – scouring the Web for content every day and then writing briefings for clients.  One time we brought in this young lady and she assured us that “Web content editor” was exactly the type of job she wanted.  So we put her to work on a file and after less than one day she came in my office, dropped the work on my desk, quit and then said “you must have the most boring job in the world”.

In reality, much of my work then (and now) involves scouring the Web for content and then writing reports for clients.   I thought I had a great job.  I was writing reports that at least some people found meaningful.

To this young lady, my job was maddeningly boring.  She couldn’t last a day.  It was humbling in the moment.

My point is that the quality of meaningfulness of work – paid jobs – depends on the perspective of the person in the job.  One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

Tying this back to the broader theme, to reach an Alberta-level of work – we would need to see 84,000 more people working in New Brunswick.  Just to reach the national average employment rate (which still hasn’t fully recovered from the recession), we would need to see 34,000 people working (on the same population base).

Historically,  the low employment rate, the high use of EI, the lack of people over the age of 65 working – were all heavily influenced by the weakness in the labour market.  Now, employers – with jobs ranging from low skilled to high skilled – are complaining about a lack of workers.  I realize there is a widening gap between the available workforce and the available jobs but I think the first step in addressing this is to focus on getting more people working.

Final point on this.  I wonder if we will hit a breaking point.  We have close to110,000 people who collect EI each year.  We have 9,000 people turning 65 every year in the province.   From 1990 to 2000, the number of people turning 65 each year held steady at around 5,800 people.  In the last decade it has jumped by over 50% and will only get larger.  If we are taking tens of thousands of people off the workforce table, what does that do to our economic potential?