From Where I Sit – A New Look at Work

Industry experts have been telling us for years about the impending labour crisis. Trades people were to be in short supply, because the current aging work force was about to retire and fewer young people are choosing the trades as a career path. Post-secondary schools like NAIT are rising to the challenge with a multi-million dollar expansion and new construction. That, however, doesn’t happen overnight.

Alberta’s hot economy has taken this issue from an interesting news item to something with direct impact on each of us. Builders are no longer guaranteeing prices on new home construction. Restaurants, warehouses and other retail outlets are shortening hours of operation. Service, notoriously bad in some sectors for some time now, has deteriorated further.

Employers not able to pay oil patch or construction site wages are increasingly left short-staffed. Some are attempting to attract out-of-province (or out-of-country) workers with incentive programs like scholarships for students, airfare and relocation costs, and signing bonuses. Those industries relying on cheap labour are being especially hard hit. Dropping services, shortening hours, re-defining job descriptions, squeezing more out of each employee are likely just stopgap measures. Many now believe that streamlining and expediting the process for bringing foreign workers into the country is the only lasting solution.

Employers are also being held hostage by those workers with questionable skills or work ethics. The thinking being that an ineffective, unreliable warm body is better than none at all. Calling in sick, coming late, and pushing all the limits are common complaints expressed by employers.

I’m certainly no expert, but I think there’s more at play here than simply an aging work force or attractive wages luring people away. I’m old enough to remember the days before Sunday shopping. My husband reminds me about Woodwards and other department stores closing at noon or one o’clock on Wednesday afternoons. I remember when ‘late shopping’ was a Friday evening treat. I remember when the province didn’t have to declare a stat holiday for Family Day because in fact families were spending Sundays and evenings together. No one starved because they couldn’t buy groceries at 11:00 p.m. No one needed to shop at 11:00 p.m., because they weren’t working crazy hours themselves. Stores closed on Remembrance Day, Easter Monday and Victoria Day.

I don’t want to be some sort of hypocrite here. I’ve enjoyed the convenience of recreational shopping as much as the next person. Could that be a factor in the largest per capita debt load in history?

Maybe some ingenious employer will dare to rationalize hours of operation by closing Sundays, limiting the late night hours, and allowing their employees the gift of stat holidays. It’ll save some money, give back quality of life, help the compulsive shopper, maximize a diminishing work force, and be so crazy it just may work. It would take a shift in thinking and a realignment of priorities for all of us. It could make a huge difference in the physical and emotional health of families and workers alike. It just might work, from where I sit.