Editorial – Canada retains one significant labour advantage
Education intangibles –
By Patrick Flannery
Canadian manufacturers retain one significant advantage over our competition.
A big difference between the U.S. and Canada becomes evident when you stop for fast food on the way to Florida. Along I-75 you sure meet a lot of counter staff who make you wonder how they managed to navigate the streets to work that day. My wife asked one server if the chicken strips were breaded. You would have thought she’d asked her to calculate the mass of Jupiter. It took three of them working together with management to even understand the question. Communication is largely through monosyllabic grunts. Lord help you if you don’t cite the combo number in your order – simply asking for what you want may not match up with the colour-coded buttons on the till. I haven’t conducted a scientific survey here, but I don’t think I need to. The average fast food employee in Canada is much smarter, much better spoken and a much better worker than their counterpart in the U.S. I can’t help but think it has something to do with our public education system, which I have heard is better than most U.S. systems on most measures.
(Obviously, I’m generalizing. If your son or daughter works at an American fast food chain, I’m definitely not talking about them.)
Loss of Canadian manufacturing to the U.S., Mexico and China is an oft-cited problem. It is depressing to those of us who think there is a value in keeping manufacturing jobs here when we contemplate the incentives companies have to move their plants elsewhere. Many jurisdictions are essentially giving free, serviced land to manufacturers and waiving property taxes. Unions frequently have no ability to enforce a contract, allowing employers to set wages on a worker-by-worker basis. Corporate taxes are often higher in the U.S., but personal income tax is much lower. Productivity numbers in Canada continue to lag the U.S. by a wide margin. The real question is, why does anyone manufacture anything here at all?
Years ago I heard an analyst talk about these problems to a Society of Manufacturing Engineers group and he mentioned one of the things Ontario had going for it was an educated workforce. At the time, it seemed to me to be a weak point. In the case of unskilled labour, particularly, it would seem to make little difference whether the workers are educated or not. I think my limitation at the time was that I had not done a lot of travelling to other parts of the world and seen what a lack of education really looks like. Without a decent basic education, people can’t even follow orders effectively. They certainly can’t be trusted to correctly interpret anything written. They can be trained to do a task, but the minute something unexpected comes up, they are lost. Somehow, learning basic skills and being challenged to complete a program of education equips people with the tools to learn and reason better, even in areas where they have not been directly trained. It really doesn’t matter how simple the task is in your business, you need employees that can at least process information well enough to function without constant supervision. That’s one thing Canada still has going for it: an “unskilled” workforce that is, by international standards, actually quite skilled.