The process of rebuilding after the Great Recession has begun in earnest inside a dingy mall in Oshawa, Ont. There, some 200 men and women pass through the doors of an employment “action centre” each week in search of a new job and, in some cases, a complete reset of their lives. Many are former auto workers laid off after General Motors shuttered its Oshawa truck plant and scaled back production at a neighbouring car plant last year. Others worked at parts companies. Few have easily transferable skills and many don’t even have a high school diploma.
Connie Snelgrove is the centre’s coordinator. She briefly worked for a supplier that built car seats, but lost her job in 2008. “I was only there two years, so I knew what the real world was—that everybody else [without skills or an education] is making $8 to $10 an hour,” says Snelgrove. “But these guys have been making good money and have been in the same environment for so long. I knew they were going to be in for a culture shock.”
Once comfortably part of this country’s large middle class—loosely defined as people who are neither rich nor poor and measured by things like a steady job, home ownership and a pension—thousands of Canadians are now turning to people like Snelgrove for help after losing their jobs and suddenly finding themselves on the margins of society. The fact that the employment upheaval, which cost nearly half a million Canadians their jobs over the past year, comes at a time when many households are carrying near record amounts of debt has only served to compound the financial pain, raising the risk of missed mortgage payments and bankruptcies.
At the Oshawa action centre, the process of transforming former assembly line workers into tradesmen and other skilled workers is a move forward, but it can be frustratingly slow. High school diplomas need to be earned and trade certificates awarded. “It’s devastating at first,” says Snelgrove of the challenges facing some of the newly unemployed.
There are glimmers of hope on the horizon. After months of shedding employees, some sectors of the job market, such as construction and professional and technical services, are finally showing signs of life. Meanwhile, the number of Canadians receiving employment insurance benefits fell by 7,300 to 795,900, after peaking at nearly 830,000 in June. The easing of Buy American restrictions in the United States last week will allow Canadian firms and manufacturers to bid on billions of dollars worth of stimulus projects south of the border.
Still, experts warn that the road back from the recession will be a long one. The factory floor jobs that once played such an important role in supporting Canada’s middle class will continue to be an endangered species, stalked by a rising dollar and an overall trend toward offshore manufacturing. Which raises the question of whether those jobs can ever be replaced and, if not, what happens to the families who once depended on them?
The recession hit Canadian workers hard and fast. Unlike previous downturns, job losses mounted quickly beginning in October 2008, with nearly 400,000 jobs being lost within 12 months (over half of them in manufacturing), according to Statistics Canada. Already suffering from a decline in employment because of the rising loonie, companies that make everything from furniture to food products were dealt a final blow by the recession. Net job losses in the sector, which in 2008 accounted for 11 per cent of all employment, down from 15 per cent a year earlier, have totalled more than half a million over the past six years.
The good news is that the employment picture has stabilized relatively quickly compared to previous downturns. That has resulted in some hopeful signs in unlikely places, including the factory floor. Several big manufacturers have been calling back laid-off workers and hiring new ones in recent months. There are rumours, too, that GM could call back many of the 1,100 workers that are currently on laid-off status. Other sectors also appear to be picking up steam. There’s buzz about new jobs being created in Alberta’s oil sands, with several new projects being announced as companies move quickly to take advantage of higher oil prices and lower construction costs. B.C.’s mining industry is also on the mend, thanks to rising mineral prices, including gold and copper. And there’s been significant job growth across the country in the construction sector in recent months, a response to Canada’s hot housing market.