Furlong | Back to school, but not to the plant

Let's stop trading in false hope by claiming that young people have a meaningful future in our fish plants, John Furlong writes.

The back-to-school coverage this week made me think about what kids are being taught in school that would set a course for them to end up working in the fish plants around the province.

I've also been thinking about all that talk we've had of attracting young people into the fishery.

And, what are school children actually taught about the fishery? Are they being taught that it is a shellfish industry now? That cod is no longer the iconic "why we settled here" symbol of our identity? (Who we were: Yes! But not who we are.)

Our declining birthrate, the end of much of the outport isolation and the quantum change in the information age continue to present endless possibilities for this current generation.

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As I've said before in this space, one redeeming thing to come out of the cod moratorium is that it forced kids to stay in school and get an education. No longer could they drop out in Grade 7 or 8  and go to work in the local fish plant.

So, what is this current crop of kids going to do when they leave school? Well, here's what they are not going to do: go to work in a fish plant!

People who continue to talk about making the industry more attractive as a way to get today's generation into fish plants are doing a disservice to the province. They are trading in false hope. It's the quintessential empty political promise, the heights of spin.

Whether people like it or not, not many aspire to a life of working in our plants. Yes, there are lots of reasons why people end up there, some social, some economic, some for reasons beyond their control. Any good day's work is honourable, especially a hard day's work.

But is there a young man or woman who is eager to graduate so they can work in a fish plant now? To work eight hours or more a day, standing on their feet, doing repetitive work in a cold, wet, and noisy environment? And then be happy with EI for the balance of the year?

Designer aprons, anyone?

The province and the union and industry keep talking about the only way to get new people into fish plants is to make it more attractive. How? Pipe in Muzak? Mood lighting? Designer aprons?

The only way that fish plant work could be attractive is to pay a lot more money, but the economics of the fishery won't allow it. People in other parts of the world already do the same work for a lot less.

That's unfortunate, but that's the way it is. It's a fact of life in the global fisheries. In order to compete, labour costs — among other things — have to be competitive. We've already brought some foreign workers into Newfoundland to work in the fish plants because we couldn't find anyone here.

The same thing happens in Nova Scotia. And P.E.I. And Iceland. And Alaska.

The last of a hardworking line

Don't get me wrong! The people who work in fish plants today should be celebrated and rewarded for the back-breaking work they have done. They and the people who have gone before them have made a significant contribution to this province.

And as they come out into the sunlight after their long days are done, they should be treated in retirement with the dignity they have earned and they deserve. Collectively, they have helped process hundreds of millions of pounds of fish over the years.

They are the last of a talented, hardworking breed of cutters and butchers and packers and sorters, the like we will probably never see again. It's time now to shift focus again in the fishery.

When our older workers retire, and our youth seize other, "better" employment opportunities, here and further afield, where will we get the foreign workers to process the fish for short-term employment?

Or, instead, will it be shipped overseas for processing? Will the processing be done at sea? Can the boats we see around us be adapted to that new world?

Wherever it's done, it won't be by the young men and women who have gone back to school this week.

Higher educational achievements and more diversified job options will mean few of them will stand on a line and cut fish for EI.

It's difficult enough dealing with the realities of today's industry. The last thing we need is to be dealing in pipe dreams.

Reality will better serve us all.