Forget “Make Work” - Try “Take Work”

By —— Bio and Archives--September 29, 2007

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I know I’ll probably get some nasty feedback over this little brain fart of mine but what the hell. Besides, there are two things I really hate:

Keeping my mouth shut; and

Sitting in front of an idle keyboard.

Here goes.

Has anyone living in, or who has recently visited, the St. John’s area noticed that on almost every street there are countless signs practically begging people to apply for a job?

I drove down Torbay Road a couple of weeks ago and counted no less than 11 such signs in a 1-kilometer stretch. It was inspiring.

Granted most of those jobs are in the service sector, but with the high demand for employees these days companies are now offering everything from medical plans to dental plans to flexible shifts, above market wages and a myriad of other perks.

If you look in any copy of the Independent or the Telegram the number of job ads has reached a point where they use up more and more pages every day. Soon the ads may create enough demand to keep the Grand Falls mill open for another hundred years, and the thing is, most often those jobs are high paying professional positions.

This new reality, where there are more jobs than applicants, may exist in the Metro area, but once you move into rural parts of the province the picture is much bleaker.

The unemployment rate across the rest of the province is staggering.

With a provincial election underway this dual reality is providing fodder for the parties and has led some to shout from the rooftops that rural Newfoundland and Labrador has been neglected ever since the oil boom hit.

Well folks, I don’t believe that for a minute and neither should you, no matter how often you hear it said.

It isn’t true under the Williams government and it wasn’t true under the previous Liberal government.

In fact, I’d be willing to argue that a great deal of focus has been placed on rural areas for a long, long time. Unfortunately, most of that attention wasn’t on what really mattered, like protecting the fish stocks before they were destroyed rather than building another unnecessary fish plant to help some candidate win an election.

It’s not a matter of rural areas not getting any attention but of getting the wrong kind of attention.

Maybe it’s time someone looked at the entire problem from a completely different angle. One where politics is left out of the equation and where pandering to voters is not a concern.

If nobody else is willing to try it, I will.

“It is not the job of government to make work”. There I said it and it feels good.

As someone far wiser than me once said, “It’s the job of government to keep the trains running on time”.

Granted that might be a little more difficult ever since our railway was ripped up and sold off some time ago, but the point is that governments shouldn’t be in the business of holding our hands and creating jobs for the sake of creating jobs.

The place of government is to make sure that essential services are delivered in the best way possible, that the public is safe on the streets and to foster an environment conducive to business growth. It’s business that should create employment, not government.

Yes, a responsible government should, and usually does, encourage business growth. They do this by offering tax breaks or other incentives to set up shop in strategic areas. They also try to court investment and market the benefits of the places they govern. That doesn’t mean, no matter what any candidate might say over the next two weeks, that government can, or even should, throw money at any industry that is clearly not salvageable or create work just to get people working.

That’s especially true in Newfoundland and Labrador these days.

I originally came from a small town and moved around the province and around the country for years before finally settling in the St. John’s area. Essentially, I went where the work took me. I didn’t want to leave my home town and I still hope to return there when I retire, but I did what I had to do. I’m still doing it.

I’m just thankful I managed to find a job where I can take a 5-hour drive on a long weekend to visit my home if I choose to do it.

Most people want to stay where they grew up, where they have family and where they are the most comfortable in their skin, but most of us can’t do that. This isn’t something that’s unique to Newfoundland and Labrador, it’s happening across Canada and around the world.

Business and industries generally congregate in large urban centers and attract employees from more rural areas. This isn’t some sort of conspiracy or plot. It’s just the way things are.

No matter how much oil or how much gas is produced, and no matter what politicians may promise, most of the business spin off from the oil industry will continue land in the St. John’s area. That’s something the government has very little control over.

Business leaders usually want to locate where they can most easily find suppliers, are close to their customers and have a bigger pool of potential employees to choose from. This is true for direct oil industry employers as it is for secondary industries like IT companies, retail stores, restaurants, hotels, taxi services and the rest.

Why is it then that so many people believe that if there isn’t a job in their small town that they are being neglected and forgotten? Why do they look to government to spend millions to create employment in places where there is none and where business does not, for whatever reason, want to move?

Think about what that expectation would really mean if it were acted upon.

In today’s reality, it would mean that government revenues, including the tax dollars desperately needed for infrastructure, schools, hospitals and so on, would be eaten away trying to find ways to make employment in one part of the province while just a few hundred kilometers away, in another part of the province, companies are screaming out for new employees. Does that make sense?

When it comes to new industries like aquaculture, wind farms, smelters and the like there are valid reasons those need to be built outside of the city centers, and there is no doubt that this sort of development is, and will continue, to happen as viable opportunities arise. It’s doubtful however that those developments will grow fast enough to make a serious dent in the unemployment rate in rural Newfoundland and Labrador any time soon. That is also a reality.

Spending millions to try to create work in some areas while there is a severe shortage of workers in another is a recipe for economic disaster.

So why are there still those who believe that simply because there is a dual economy in the province, rural Newfoundland and Labrador is getting nothing from the oil boom?

As I noted, I’m originally from far outside the overpass but I now live near St. John’s. Do you know something? I get the same benefit from the oil industry and increased government revenues as most people in the province do, urban or rural.

I don’t get a cheque in my mail box every week. I don’t glide to work on gold paved streets, and I don’t spend my days sipping champagne. I work for a living and more often than not I work damn hard only to drive home over a road full of potholes.

On the other hand, I do occasionally notice some improvement in highways across the island (it’s here that the folks in Labrador may have a far better argument than most about being forgotten or neglected).

I sometimes see new dialysis equipment, cancer clinics or seniors’ care facilities being built.

I see attention being paid to refurbishing schools or improvements being made to other government services.

I see more or different medications being covered by the government funded drug plan than in the past. (Though not nearly enough)

I see provincial debt slowly being addressed and I see the amount of income tax I pay every week reduced thanks to lower provincial taxes.

It’s these things that are made possible by an increase in provincial revenues and it is these things that are used to spread the wealth from the oil and gas sector around the province.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not praising the current government for these things. It’s simply a fact that there is more money coming into provincial coffers today than there has been in the past and as a result more can be done.

More will continue to be done as time goes by, no matter which party wins the election on October 9. Though the specific spending priorities may change, the way the wealth is distributed will not.

If there are deficiencies in how services are dispersed across the province now or in the future then yes, by all means fight for more attention and better treatment, but don’t for a minute believe that no benefits are finding their way to rural Newfoundland and Labrador simply because you can’t find a job where you live.

If, instead of improving services, the next government opts to spread the wealth around by actually listening to those who believe they are being neglected and artificially prop up or extend the life of any industry that isn’t viable, then we will all pay the price eventually.

It’s simple folks.

Government should not spend its time and millions of dollars of our money trying to artificially create employment in one part of the province while there is a severe shortage of workers in another.

It’s all about keeping the trains running on time

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Myles Higgins -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Myles Higgins is freelance columnist and writes for Web Talk - Newfoundland and Labrador
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