Unskilled workers are suddenly back in vogue

Employers are now actively looking for unskilled workers - those with the skills that don't require a post-secondary education


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VANCOUVER, B.C. Nov. 16, 2015/ Troy Media/ – Two unusual changes are emerging in demographics and the demand for workers.

Our population is aging and birth rates in Canada have been hovering below the replacement level of about two kids per woman since the mid-1960s. Death rates have been dropping steadily for all age groups, giving us a longer-living, older population. In the United States, the pattern has been similar.

That is why it was big news when Angus Deaton, who just won the Nobel prize in economics, and Anne Case, an economic researcher at Princeton, released a paper showing that, since 2000, the death rate in the U.S. has risen notably for white Americans aged 45 to 54. There was a smaller, but still visible upturn in death rates for whites in their 30s and 60s.

In U.S. data, Hispanics are considered separately from whites. Data for Hispanics and black Americans did not display this anomaly. Their death rates continue to follow the long-term pattern and diminish.

Two factors might help explain this surprising finding. First, death rates were high among those with little or no post-secondary education. Second, the growing number of deaths are caused by drug and alcohol poisoning, suicides and liver disease.

The first factor, little education, could lead to the second factor. Job and income prospects for the untrained and unskilled have been diminishing even for those in the mainstream population. Did unemployment and despair lead to drug and alcohol abuse? One could make the case that it was substance abuse that led to these people being less educated and becoming unemployable but that leaves unanswered the question of why there were increased death rates in this particular demographic sector.

It is a good thing that Canada shows no sign of such a dramatic demographic change. In this case, boring is good. Our death rates continue to decline across all age groups, though we will doubtless be keeping a closer eye on the numbers given our tendency to follow U.S. trends.

Another unexpected change is appearing in the kind of workers that employers are now concerned about finding – unskilled workers. For decades, the mantra has been stay in school, get an education or – even better – get a skilled trade and the world is your oyster.

However, some cracks are appearing in that received wisdom. A recent article in the Economist showed that a liberal arts degree led to below average earnings for that education level. Even skilled trades workers are not as scarce as they used to be.

In B.C., both in Metro Vancouver and beyond, employers who are asked about their most pressing labour needs mention unskilled workers. This is true in construction and other heavy industries where the need for skilled workers is less of the bottleneck than it used to be. It is true in retail trade and food services where help wanted signs blossom in front of stores and restaurants.

One must be careful about using the term ‘unskilled’. It does not mean someone with no talents or abilities. Rather it means that employers are looking for the skills that one does not need a post-secondary education to acquire. Often called soft skills, the attitudes and behaviours that employers seek when hiring are things like reliability, work habits, people skills (especially in service sectors) and a positive attitude.

Employers are having trouble finding such people even among the many unemployed with little formal education. The fact that the pay is low for many of these jobs does not help.

Can we put these two changes together? Will an increased need for unskilled workers provide opportunities for those with less formal education and to whom unemployment and despair lead to drug and alcohol abuse and even death? Will basic market economics result in an increase in wages in lower skilled jobs making them a more attractive option?

As these changes have shown us, we don’t always know what is coming. Predicting the future will be like the past can lead us astray. Things will be different but that means they won’t be boring.

Troy Media Business columnist Roslyn Kunin is a consulting economist and speaker. Roslyn is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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