(This article has been translated into French)

Service is not what it used to be at your favorite restaurant. Your disappointment has been such that you mentioned it to the maître d’. They probably explained that they are unable to attract competent employees. Post-pandemic, restaurants – like many other small, medium and large companies – face an unprecedented labour shortage. While the symptoms are clearly visible, finding a remedy may be less obvious.

According to a new poll we conducted at Discover, Navigator’s research arm, 87 per cent of Canadians think labour shortages are a serious problem, including 38 per cent who believe it is a “very serious” issue. This finding supports the Bank of Canada’s quarterly business survey, which reports that more than one-third of Canada’s businesses (36 per cent) suffer from a labour shortage that restrict their ability to meet demand.

The situation may be even more problematic south of the border. Indeed, in the United States, so many people have left their jobs, looking for better work conditions, that media have dubbed the phenomenon “the Great Resignation.”

Moreover, the number of strikes in the U.S. has increased as unionized workers – only 11 per cent of American workers – try to force employers to improve salaries, benefits and work schedules. “Workers are on strike for a better deal and a better life,” explained Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, a U.S. federation of labour unions, as reported by Reuters. “The pandemic really did lay bare the inequities of our system and working people are refusing to return to crappy jobs that put their health at risk.”

Unemployment is down, but there are still issues

What are employees demanding? Our survey finds that when Canadians are looking for a job, salary is still the number one factor (for 42 per cent of workers). However, for a significant proportion of employees (17 per cent), the work schedule is fundamental. This percentage is significantly larger among young workers and women.

Now that we are entering into the post-COVID era, employers in Canada and in the United States realize that working from home (WFH) has had a huge impact on their employees’ expectations: workers are yearning for flexibility. Amazon, among other large employers, has had to adapt its return-to-work plan to allow more WFH.

“If you don’t offer the flexibility that people are craving for, and if you don’t meet the moment, you will lose talent, and leaders like Andy Jassy (Amazon’s CEO) know this,” professor Tsedal Neeley, from Harvard Business School, told the Wall Street Journal.

Canadians offer two perspectives on possible solutions. In the short-term, employers and workers blame the now defunct Canada Emergency Response Benefit and Canada Recovery Benefit for part of the problem. According to our survey, 43 per cent of Canadians think that too generous government programs are at the root of the labour shortages hurting businesses in Canada.

It appears that the federal government has heard this message and made the appropriate policy changes. Workers have become more demanding in regard to salaries and other working conditions, according to 32 per cent of the survey’s participants.

In the longer term, Canadians suggest more fundamental changes. When asked whether the government or the private sector is responsible for the labour shortages, 63 per cent pointed to businesses “who do not provide their employees with decent salaries and working conditions.” The other 37 per cent think that governments have not done enough to “develop programs to encourage immigration and training so that there are more skilled employees available.”

Businesses are rightly asking government to improve worker training and attract more skilled immigrants. However, as this and other surveys show, Canadians also expect businesses to step up. After months of telling their workers that they played an essential role during the pandemic, private-sector employers should now act accordingly and offer their people better working conditions.

This means, yes, increased pay. The Ontario provincial government has gone in the right direction by recently proposing an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour effective Jan. 1, 2022. “An incredible debt of gratitude is owed to the frontline workers of Ontario. These dedicated men and women kept store shelves stocked and supply chains going throughout the pandemic,” asserts the government’s 2021 Fall Economic Statement. “For too long, wages for many have not kept up with the cost of living. Ontario workers should be in a race to the top, not a race to the bottom.” This is true for other regions of the country as well.

Flexibility is key. Unemployment in Canada is now back to its low, pre-pandemic level, which means that many workers can choose where to work. Salary and flexibility – with schedules that include working from home and other arrangements like four-day work weeks – will most likely determine their decision. This requires a profound change in the culture of many firms. ”Working from home is a strategic move, not just a tactical one that saves money,” Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics told the New York Times. “A lot of it comes down to trust. Do you trust your people?”

Businesses have no alternative but to make such changes, or they will continue to be short of workers. On the other hand, if they do change, they will be rewarded by retaining and attracting competent and committed employees.

Discover by Navigator undertook an online survey with 1,508 adult Canadians on October 18, 2021. Quotas and weighting were employed for the general population to ensure that the sample’s composition reflects that of the Canadian population according to Statistics Canada census data. For comparison purposes, a probability sample of this size would carry a margin of error of +/- 2.6 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

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André Pratte
André Pratte is a principal at Navigator, a national strategy advisory firm. Before joining Navigator, Pratte was chief editorial writer at La Presse (2001-2015) and an independent senator (2016-2019).
André Turcotte
André Turcotte is a principal at Navigator and brings more than 25 years of experience in public opinion and public affairs research. He is also associate professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication where he lectures in political communication and quantitative methods.

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