Every Thursday, Kim Kent’s bosses at Cooper Standard tack a list of names to the wall. Cooper is an auto parts plant in Stratford, Ont., that makes rubber door trim for the Detroit Three, and the printout dictates the work schedule for the week ahead. It’s simple, really, explains Kent. “If your name is on the list, then you’re working; if it’s not, you’re not.” On Dec. 11, hers wasn’t. And with that she became yet another victim of the job crunch sweeping the country.
This isn’t the first time the 41-year-old autoworker has faced the axe. Two decades ago she took a job at another auto parts maker, where her father had worked before her, only to see the company go bust during the recession of the early 1990s. As stressful as that time was, it was nothing compared to the anxiety she’s feeling now. “This is so much scarier,” says Kent, 41. “The first time I lost my job, there were lots of other plants in town. Nowadays, there’s nothing else. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Kent’s worries have been made worse by the sudden drop in the real estate market. Five years ago, when her job seemed secure, she took the plunge and bought her first house. Once her unemployment insurance cheques begin to roll in, Kent figures they’ll barely cover her mortgage payments, let alone food and other basic living expenses. “My car is sitting in the driveway with a flat tire, another cost I can’t afford to deal with now.” She regularly checks the local newspaper for other types of jobs. There was a “livestock trucking mechanic” position open the other day, but when you don’t know the first thing about engine repair, let alone cattle, what are you doing to do? “If I knew the layoffs were going to be very long term, I’d go back to school,” she says. “But even then I really don’t know what I would study. Where are the good jobs?”
It’s a question being asked far beyond the assembly lines of the automotive industry. After 15 phenomenal years of employment creation, Canada’s job machine is seizing up. Canadians got a startling glimpse of what may be in store last month, when Statistics Canada revealed employers shed a jaw-dropping 71,000 jobs in November, the worst monthly plunge in a quarter of a century. Since then, a steady flow of pink slips at Canadian companies suggests that figure is almost certain to rise.
Pick any region of the country and layoffs are becoming a sad fact of life. Detroit’s Big Three have already laid off thousands of workers in central Canada, and announced they’ll be shutting down many of their plants for a full month. On Bay Street hundreds of lawyers, investment bankers and analysts have been let go. Media companies across the country have slashed their newsrooms—most recently Quebecor axed 600 jobs at its Sun newspaper chain. In Quebec, a major T-shirt maker sent 400 packing. In Calgary, 400 carpenters building housing for oil sands workers are themselves out in the cold. And in Vancouver, industries as diverse as mining and video game development have slashed jobs and are closing up shop.
Add it all up, and economists believe unemployment is set to jump dramatically over the next two years, and no province or industry is immune. TD Economics estimates 251,000 jobs will be lost over the next nine months. The major bank economists are cautiously optimistic that the country won’t see a repeat of the downturns in the 1980s and 1990s, when the ranks of the unemployed swelled to around 12 per cent of the workforce; if they’re wrong, the scale of job losses would be far worse. During the 1990s Canada suffered two straight years of job losses totalling 356,000, warns James Marple, an economist with TD Bank. “Our forecast is that job losses won’t be that dire,” he says. “But the risk of job losses being worse than we anticipate is there.”
So the ultimate questions on most people’s minds are these: could one of those vanishing jobs be mine? Who’s safe and who’s at risk? What parts of the country will be hardest hit? And can I do anything to protect myself?