Want fries with that?

Posted on February 23, 2012 | Atlantic Business Magazine | 0 Comments

The lesson the current troubles in economies both far and near teaches we denizens of this third rock from the sun is not that life is unfair, or that poor people outnumber wealthy ones by an absurd order of magnitude. Surely, we already know this. The nauseating epiphany descends when we realize that even the most prudent, careful and responsible among us – indeed, any one of us – can become someone else’s free lunch in the blink of a corporate ring leader’s eye.

A December 31 story in London’s Daily Mail predicts that the formerly “great” Britain, the home of blood pudding, warm ale, druidical henges, and so much consumer debt that corner grocers can’t install pin-card readers fast enough, will become an economic powerhouse by 2050.

Indeed, the UK will be “the biggest economy in Europe with one of the wealthiest populations in the world . . . It will jump from being the sixth wealthiest country in the world to third, based on national income per head. Only people in the United States and Canada will be more prosperous.”

Or so claims Goldman Sachs, about which U.S. Senator Carl Levin once raged: “They were self-interested promoters of risky schemes. They bundled toxic mortgages into complex financial instruments, got the credit rating agencies to label them as AAA securities, and sold them to investors, magnifying and spreading risk throughout the system, and all too often betting against the instruments they sold and profiting at the expense of their clients.”

Yeah, those guys.

Still, we need not look this far afield to observe the insidious effects on the average Joe and Jane of corporate disingenuousness, though, perhaps, not on the breathtaking scale of Goldman Sachs.

The Atlantic Provinces Economic Council reports that over the past decade industrial players in this region, which complain about a pervasive shortage of skills, have created nearly four times as many low-wage jobs as higher-end ones, even as they have earned sometimes record profits.

“In the private sector, the creation of 14,300 high-wage jobs in construction over the decade was not sufficient to offset the loss of 28,500 positions in manufacturing,” the think tank declares in one of its recent epistles. “The net creation of 11,000 new jobs in high-wage industries between 2001-2010 came from an expansion of the public sector, which added 13,000 jobs in public administration and education.”

And it gets worse.

“Looking forward, public administration and education will not be a major source of high-wage job creation in the Atlantic region . . . as federal and provincial governments focus on deficit-reduction, and school enrollments are projected to decline,” APEC writes. “Meanwhile, in the private sector, flat housing markets and major project activity will limit high-wage job growth in construction and professional services over the next few years, except in Newfoundland and Labrador.”

Even there, though, where $40-billion in major energy programs are gearing up to provide historic boons to the once-benighted eastern tip of Canada, the gulf between the corporate sector’s tight-fisted accumulation of capital and its responsibility for building and maintaining a competitive workforce is growing.

“Employers across the province are having trouble hiring tradespeople for new projects and other positions,” a Globe and Mail piece asserted in December. “Thousands of people continue to leave home to find employment elsewhere – notably in Alberta’s oil fields – as Newfoundland suffers a 13.2-per-cent jobless rate.” It’s a circumstance about which Premier Kathy Dunderdale can only observe glumly, “We know it’s a problem.”

You bet it is.

If we are determined to avoid becoming a region of clerks, waiters and other ignoble varieties of counter help, industry must start investing in the people who protect its long-term productivity and profits. This means parting with some of the cash it’s been hoarding since the downfall of global financial markets and establishing training programs for the workers it needs to remain relevant, innovative and fully engaged in the global marketplace.

People don’t serve the economy. They are the economy.

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