A Canadian Perspective on Jobs

Technology Jobs are Still Here, but the Less-Technical, Less-Skilled Jobs are Not. Why?

By Jeremy Pollard

The year was 1955. The Chisholms came to Canada so John, a physicist, could start work at Canadair, a Canadian aircraft company. That's where my parents met them. My dad was an accountant, so we had a bean counter and a numbers guy together, both British.

North America always has needed skilled labor and smart people. No one knew what a physicist did, so they called him an engineer.

My folks told me that at a company function, some bonehead said to John's wife, "You damn Limeys. You come over here, take our jobs, and we are left out in the cold. Go home!" This is 1955.

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My previous column was a response to a technical group in India. It felt like déjà vu. When the PLC was first introduced here, many people were very scared that technology would take jobs. Our industry convinced most everyone that more jobs would be created because of this technology. We were right.

But something changed. Those technology jobs are still there, but the less-technical, less-skilled jobs are not. But why? Nothing is different.

It took 30 years for us to get here. It probably will take India less than 10. The parallels are uncanny, and next time I'll draw you a roadmap from the '80s and '90s from the pens of Dick Morley, Jim Pinto and me. It's a bit of a history lesson, but maybe also a foretelling of things to come.

But wait, if you order now…and therein lies the rub. Our constant push for profits, efficiency and productivity created a McDonald's environment. Forget that fast food can kill me. I'm hungry now.

There have been a few watershed moments in the past year. The World Bank suggested that automation and technology are primary drivers of global unemployment. Remember the segment on 60 Minutes about robots hurting job growth? Of course, they are and have been. But in Minnesota alone there are more than 2,800 welder positions unfilled. Now, it's a trade job, and a dirty one. Wages have stagnated at less than $20/hour for five years. There might not be enough welders anyway, since robotics replaced a lot of the "finesse" welding jobs. So, the grunt work remains. And robots build robots.

It's all about economics, right? Pay well, and you are supposed to get good work and good workers. No disrespect to unions, but they have been complicit in proving that statement wrong. Unions are government — people working and paying to keep the top 5% employed.

I believe that if unions (which have to be the system check because public and private companies can't be trusted either) and companies forged a new paradigm, then this could change. A robot doesn't demand anything.

In Canada, there is an apprenticeship push. We have a definite-purpose college system. You can take a diploma course on verbal Ojibwe. It seems that the colleges are trying to create jobs for themselves, too.

According to a Canadian article about jobs, the gap in available jobs to people to fill them is wide. The list will scare you. There is no technical engineering type job category in the top 20. Again, one wonders if there will not be any reason to have that job category, or that there are no vacancies.

The writer says that Canada is transitioning to a knowledge-based economy, which is required to produce value add to products and services.

Well, it's funny how there are so many overqualified people working in jobs that shouldn't be available to them. Those jobs are designed for the less qualified, leaving the qualified available.

Then, of course, who has enough money to buy anything union-made? Final product cost is a main driver. See: Wal-Mart.

Has automation caused this phenomenon? The advent of the PLC and the whole software and computer frenzy allowed management to pad their bonuses by offshoring and reducing staff.

I remember when Hitachi announced its first "lights out" facility in Japan. Comments ranged from "Wow, no people?" to "Productivity at its best" to "Guess the maintenance guys will be busy." Metrics on how many jobs overall might be gained as a result were not in the question hopper. One point that was missed is that some Japanese companies have been paying supplanted workers. They knew that a lights-out mentality would remove jobs from the pool. Did we?