Engineer? Teacher? Sorry, that doesn’t guarantee job security anymore

Dozens were lined up for a job fair for the Shorelines Casino Peterborough, in May. Niki Anastasakis/CHEX News File

Pour your time, money and energy into an expensive post-secondary education or certification, muscle through an assortment of unpaid internships at personal cost, and eventually the labour market will reward you with a steady income, a pension, and benefits. At least, that’s how we tend to think about it, Ricardo Tranjan says.

The problem, says Tranjan, a senior researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), is that that doesn’t always happen.

In fact, a new CCPA report finds that more than a fifth of Canadians working professional jobs are in a precarious position.

Where once their jobs — social workers, teachers, engineers — were thought of as secure, now those people are working contract-to-contract for less money, no sick days, and unpredictable schedules. What’s even more startling, Tranjan says, is that this problem doesn’t seem to be limited to just young professionals trying to get a foot in the door.

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“It’s in all age groups and it also cuts across levels of experience,” he says, which “tells us its a social policy, economic and social policy issue that we really need to look at more carefully.”

The study is billed as first of its kind, meant to highlight how precarious work isn’t just limited to low-wage jobs. In surveying 1,000 professionals across Canada, the CCPA found that 22 per cent of them struggled with employment insecurity.

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Of that group, 37 per cent work contract-to-contract, 34 per cent work part-time, and 15 per cent work as freelancers. Although their circumstances are slightly different, the report found plenty of similarities. Sixty per cent have no pension or paid sick days and 53 per cent find their income fluctuates a lot. While more women than men find themselves in precarious professional jobs, the insecurity for both is tied with an income likely to be below $60,000 per year.

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There’s a widespread misconception that low-wage, service jobs are precarious by nature, Tranjan says, but this report helps dispel that.

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“These are positions filled by highly-trained professionals,” he says. “It really drives the point that there’s nothing intrinsic about this.”

This is a management problem, Tranjan says. He points to academia as an example. In a bid to keep costs low, universities stopped hiring as many tenure-track professors, he says, leading to more people working contract by contract.

Is that an unavoidable reality of the direction Canada’s workforce is heading in?

We’ve been here for awhile, says Michelynn Laflèche, vice-president with United Way of Greater Toronto. The United Way has authored three reports into the issue over the past few years.

“We wanted to understand what the impact of growing precarity was for people, for individuals, for families, for communities,” Laflèche says.

What emerged was a grim picture:

“If you’re one of these workers who’s in a precarious job, you earn less, you’re more stressed, you don’t know what you’re going to be doing in three months — your family’s declining because of it.”

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The list goes on, she says.

And then, “your ability to plan for the future is gone and your ability to get yourself out of the situation declines. People get trapped.”

Nearly two years ago, Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau told a Liberal Party meeting that Canadians needed to get used to “job churn.” In other words, they needed to get comfortable with career changes and less long-term employment opportunities.

In clarifying those remarks later, Morneau said the solution was in education and training.

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“What I’ve spoken about is the need for the federal government to ensure that we are enabling Canadians to be successful and this means young people as they seek to get their first job, and families as they seek to buy their first house,” he said.

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“So for young people facing their job prospects, we know that our efforts in education and in training and in retraining are going to be critically important.”

Except, Tranjan says, the CCPA’s report is about people whose high levels of education and training aren’t paying off. In fact, among all the survey respondents between the ages of 22 and 34, nearly half said that a permanent, full-time job in their field of work “is almost non-existent.”

An engineer quoted in the report says his faculty “brags about the statistics that they have about employment… I’m getting the rude awakening that maybe engineering isn’t as stable as you thought it would be.”

Stability is key, Laflèche says.

When the United Way started to investigate how income played into the stability, it realized that stability seemed to make more of a difference.

“If you’re a middle-income worker who’s in an insecure job, your social and health outcomes would be worse than if you were a low-income worker in a secure job,” she says.

It’s hard to know how to live your daily life, let alone plan for your future when your income changes from middle to low income and back depending on your employment status.

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Hovering there, Laflèche says, is “creating anxiety, distress, and challenges with making investments that people who are in secure jobs feel confident making.”

Precarious employment is a problem, Tranjan says, but it’s one we do know how to fix. Government regulations about labour standards and unionization help, he says, as does setting a minimum wage “at levels that allow people to have a decent living.”

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There’s already a path forward, he says, given how the government made changes to manufacturing jobs in the 1940s that changed it from a precarious line of work into “a really good job.”

“We don’t need an exotic policy framework to address this issue,” Tranjan says. “We’ve done it once and we know how to do it again.”

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— with a file from The Canadian Press

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