In hard economic times like these, most of us live in fear of getting laid off. But when Rick Geister got his pink slip he saw it as a lucky break. For the past 15 years, the 40-year-old had toiled away at the auto parts company Kitchener Frame, first as a welder, then for seven years as a quality control inspector. It wasn’t the best job, but it was well-paid, regular work and he had a good pension. So when the Kitchener, Ont., company hit hard times and Geister recently found himself jobless, it was scary at first. But he quickly came to see the upside to his situation. Here, at last, was a chance to pursue the career he’d dreamed of since high school, but never pursued because a guidance counsellor had advised against it: he would become a police officer. “Losing this job is kind of a blessing, because it’s given me a second chance to do something I really want to do,” he says. “Hopefully I can get in and make a career of it.”
Geister hopes to get accepted into the Ontario Provincial Police training program this fall. Money will be tight, but the roughly $40,000 he expects as part of his plant-closure contract makes for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “I’m just happy to have the chance right now to do this,” he says. “I see policing as a really good job.” His wife, who previously stayed home to look after their seven-year-old son and two-year-old daughter, is also using the disruption to explore new opportunities. She’s looking to go back to work, perhaps training to be a nurse.
As Geister and his wife are discovering, Canada’s new financial reality is forcing changes in people’s behaviour and attitudes, and not all of them are for the worse. The negative changes—the reduced expectations, the stress and the financial strain—have been well documented. But the downturn has also affected Canadians in some surprisingly positive ways. After all, if you still have a job—and despite the surge in unemployment levels, most working-age Canadians still do—a recession is not necessarily all bad. Prices tend to drop, the cost of living goes down, and most people’s salaries tend to at least hold steady. Perhaps more importantly, there’s less pressure to keep up, and hard times can bring out both empathy and a renewed sense of gratitude for what you have. For some Canadians, the coming months might not be quite as terrible as they might think.
The truth is, while the booming economy of the past several years has been good for many, it was also putting pressure on many middle-class families. Nowhere was this more apparent than in real estate. In big cities like Toronto and Vancouver, even double-income families found themselves priced out the market for starter homes. At the peak of the market early last year, the average price of a detached home in Vancouver was nearing $1 million, and an average homeowner would have to fork over a full 75 per cent of his or her household income just to own a standard detached bungalow. More and more, for most families, buying a home meant taking out massive, risky, long-term mortgages.
Today, the real estate market is cooling fast—bad news for those who bought into the market at its height, but a welcome relief for first-time buyers. In fact, for the first time in almost a decade, a buyer’s market is emerging, says Peter Simpson, the chief executive officer of the Greater Vancouver Home Builders’ Association. The prices of some Vancouver single- family homes have dropped by as much as $130,000 already, he says, and house prices across the rest of the country are following suit. The average price of a home in Canada is down by more than three per cent since last summer, according to the Teranet-National Bank Composite House Price Index, and the index’s forward market shows prices dropping by a full 20 per cent in total.
The real estate speculators that helped drive up the market and made buying a home so difficult are now gone, say Simpson. “We’re not seeing these lineups at condominium projects that are sold out literally overnight.” That has sellers suddenly going to great lengths to lure buyers back into the market. Last month, one Vancouver company was offering a free $70,000 Mercedes SUV as an incentive to purchase a new home. Free cars have also been offered up in Toronto to get people buying again.
Just as real estate prices kept many from realizing the middle-class dream, education has also long presented a major barrier to those looking to get ahead. The costs of post-secondary schooling have been rising steadily in recent decades, while funding for all but the poorest of middle-income students has been increasingly scarce. But here too, there is suddenly new breathing room. In Ontario, which has been hardest hit by the manufacturing slump, the government pledged last year to put $1.5 billion toward retraining workers. Over 4,000 laid-off workers in Ontario have already gone back to school, whether to become welders, nurses or small business owners. Colleges, particularly in the manufacturing regions in southern Ontario, have been expanding to handle soaring enrolment numbers.
For many, this has meant new opportunities to pursue careers that once seemed out of reach. Liaison College, a culinary school in Hamilton, Ont., has been taking in aspiring chefs laid off from the local steel industry, some of whom have secured as much as $28,000 in provincial government funding to take the 15-month program. “It’s a second career for many people who have wanted to do this, but had the responsibility of a family, mortgages and car payments, and felt they couldn’t leave and start all over again,” says Murline Mallette, the school’s owner. “We’re not recession-proof, but the jobs are still there.”
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