In the political honeymoon days for the Liberals following the 2015 election, CBC’s The National did a pretty cool TV experiment where they let individual Canadians interview Justin Trudeau. One of those interviews was done by a struggling worker from the London, ON area named Neil Piercey. Piercey told Trudeau that he had lost his good manufacturing job years earlier when the company pulled up stakes and left for Mexico. He had used up his RRSP savings to pay his mortgage and was working at a low-paying job.
“Certain jobs you just can’t apply for,” Piercey told the PM. “I can’t go and intern. I can’t go and apply for certain jobs…It’s not easy. If there are no more manufacturing jobs, and that’s mostly my experience all my life, where am I supposed to go?”
Of course, Trudeau didn’t offer any great answers. He said a few things about talking to big international companies about setting up shop in Canada, and about improving the Canada Pension Plan.
According to my new premier Doug Ford’s campaign trail promises, the solutions to the province’s problems lie in keeping money in taxpayers’ pocketbooks, including making gas cheaper and giving minimum-wage-earners like Piercey a break on paying taxes. It’s a well-worn 1980s-era cassette that gets hauled out every four years by one politician or another.
Ford, and many politicians before him, campaigned against “out-of-touch” elites and picked up on peoples’ sense that the overall government system was rigged to ignore people like Neil Piercey. Stephen Harper liked to campaign against the media, academics and bureaucrats, and the message resonated. I don’t have to review what happened in the United States.
But the anti-elite themes and the pocketbook promises that inevitably go with them are doing a great disservice to Ontarians in 2018, even if the approach seems to work quite well for the politicians come election time.
A buck a beer, “No carbon taxes!” and cheaper gas all sound lovely, but what do you really do about people who trained for jobs that no longer exist? How will you ensure that high school kids in Timmins and Kenora and Perth are learning the skills that match with the labour market, which is constantly going through convulsions and revolutions? Offer them a cheap Coors Light?
The future of work, education and skills training are neither elite nor liberal issues.
A 2017 study of the impact of robots on German jobs shows that while workers managed to shift to the new types of employment (note that German firms and unions work together on reskilling, unlike ours), robots ultimately had a negative impact on wages. The authors also find that it was harder for new workers to get jobs, and this is another factor contributing to the threat of rising inequality due to technological change being discussed around the world.
The international consulting firm BDO earlier this year predicted that robots would replace 50 percent of mining jobs by 2020, a trend directly relevant to many Ontario workers. A recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute on the impact of automation estimated that up to one-third of the workforce in advanced economies will need to reskill and find new work.
Cutting business taxes, slowing down the minimum wage hike, and slashing red tape, which Ford promised, also sound logical, because helping entrepreneurs and small and medium-sized businesses will create more jobs.
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But what about some of the more complex challenges facing business in Ontario and Canada, such as the shortage of venture capital for scaling up innovative new ideas, the need to protect Canadian intellectual property overseas, the shortages of skilled workers for cutting-edge jobs, the decline in business research and development? How do you encourage companies to innovate, to go digital, so they can compete globally? What happens to people living in outlying and rural areas when the good new jobs cluster in the big centres?
As the Munk School’s David Wolfe recently wrote of the world’s new “platform economy,” “What we sell in the future. . .may be fewer hard goods, and more intelligent software with a myriad of applications in business and consumer markets.”
Ontarians aren’t stupid — they see what is unfolding. At the grocery store, there are fewer workers; every day more of the checkout lanes are run by machines. Ditto for the warehouses.
Ontarians aren’t stupid — they see what is unfolding. At the grocery store, there are fewer workers; every day more of the checkout lanes are run by machines. Ditto for the warehouses. The taxis have been replaced with Uber and Lyft drivers. Many workers (roughly half of them in the Greater Toronto Area) are in precarious work situations and don’t have the benefits workers used to have. There is more and more talk about trucking jobs going extinct. Nobody’s quite sure what to take at college or university.
And here’s the thing about anti-elite campaigns: the elites are going to make out just fine. The cover story in June’s Atlantic magazine explores the “new American aristocracy,” the 9.9 percent of citizens who hold most of the wealth in the country, and how it’s getting increasingly difficult for the rest of the population to climb up the socio-economic ladder. Things are better in Canada, where there is more income redistribution, but intergenerational income mobility also depends on where you live in this country, as Canadian economist Miles Corak has documented.
While Ford talked about giving Ontarians beer for a buck, the elites were at their conferences. They were discussing automation, artificial intelligence, the gig economy, and how to better educate children and train workers for a labour market and marketplace that is unclear, but that will most definitely be radically different from what we know today.
Ford will find many Conservatives in Ontario’s corporate sector who have first-hand knowledge of the changing job market and the rising platform economy, and he should draw from their expertise. The future of work and the changing marketplace is a conversation everyone in Ontario should join.
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