Myriam Leduc | CUPE Staff

At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, there were massive layoffs in various industries in Canada. Thousands of unionized and non-unionized workers across the country lost their jobs, in spite of various government assistance programs aimed at encouraging companies to keep their employees on board.

Two years later, the labour shortage is on the lips of pretty much everyone. Nonetheless, the lost jobs were regained and the unemployment rate has declined.  

Current data clearly shows that we have a problem. In the two years prior to the pandemic, there were between 500,000 and 600,000 job vacancies across Canada. This number skyrocketed to 900,000 vacancies by the final half of 2021.  

Economists and CUPE have noted that in cases where the number of job vacancies is rising in a sector where compensation remains steady, such as health care, this may be an indication that not enough people are willing to work for the wages offered.  

Conversely, in sectors where wages have somewhat increased, such as the accommodation sector, employers still aren’t offering enough hours per week for workers to make ends meet.  

In Quebec, the crisis is even more acute in certain sectors such as retail and food services, where jobs are generally precarious and working conditions unattractive. Entire industries have been built on cheap labour, and the turnover of young workers continues unabated, as employers have not really shown much appetite to provide better working conditions. 

For some time now, the labour shortage has hit the Quebec public sector just as hard, particularly health care and education, which has sparked an unprecedented crisis. Young workers are leaving these sectors in droves, searching for jobs that offer more attractive working conditions and real work-life balance, that recognize their expertise and autonomy, and that are less taxing on their mental health.  

The pandemic not only changed people’s relationship with work but also worsened the already inevitable labour shortage due to an aging population and, by extension, an older workforce.  

In order to ensure the sustainability and quality of public services in the long run, employers must focus on hiring younger employees and paying attention to their needs, particularly by offering fair compensation and benefits, flexible work arrangements and mentorship programs for those who are less experienced.  

Even though union organizations have made substantial gains during the last public sector negotiations, the Quebec government has been slow to spearhead a move to bring about long overdue changes to the intangible working conditions of public employees, which would keep young (and older) workers in these essential jobs.  

HEC Montréal’s Gestion magazine recently ran an article entitled “Labour shortage: a brewing catastrophe”, which went on to demonstrate that “the labour shortage has a major impact on businesses. A BDC study showed that half of them have trouble finding workers and a quarter have difficulties retaining their employees.” This prevents these companies from achieving their growth potential.  

But the labour shortage is a catastrophe for whom exactly? For young workers, doesn’t this labour shortage rather mirror our choices in a job market that often has little to offer to newcomers to the world of work? One is left to wonder whether a pendulum shift of sorts really is a catastrophe. 

For young people in the workforce, this labour shortage is an opportunity to underscore the value of their work to employers and demand better conditions.

The pandemic has also forced employers to review the organization of work to allow employees to work remotely. This democratization of remote work has not only proven its worth in the past two years, but it has allowed for a better work-life balance, a key priority for young people. In fact, a recent study by the Association of Young Chambers of Commerce of Quebec (Regroupement des jeunes chambres de commerce du Québec, or RJCCQ) found that 66% of young professionals aged 16 to 35 want to work from home all the time, while 33% want a hybrid model and only 1% want to return to the office full-time. 

Back in the day, it was commonplace for workers to spend their entire working life with the same company, particularly for the benefits such as a defined-benefit pension plan, which made it very enticing to build a career in one place. However, those in the younger generation are more inclined to change jobs as better opportunities and benefit packages come along.  

These workers are seeking work environments where they feel more valued, where they are recognized and consulted, and where they can make a real contribution, at a time when working hours are often fragmented and the boundaries between work and home life have become increasingly blurred.  

The challenges that employers are facing are real, but solutions do exist. The question now is what can be done, in 2022, to create a sustainable work environment that makes young workers want to stay?  

Perhaps the practice of imposing lengthy probationary periods on new hires and offering fewer benefits to temporary and often younger workers is no longer the solution.  

Flexibility, recognition, favourable conditions, work-life balance and social engagement are all winning conditions when it comes to attracting and retaining young workers, and especially in our public services sector which has gone through austerity measures and staff quitting in droves. 

Most of these issues are often brought up and defended by unions at the bargaining table, particularly in white-collar and professional settings. Even in these contexts, however, making breakthroughs poses a challenge.  

The time has come to perceive labour shortages differently: less as a brewing catastrophe and more as an opportunity to transform the world of work and reverse the balance of power.