Jobs or good jobs? Detail more important than the headline employment stat: Don Pittis

Would you want that job? Headline jobless numbers hide important details about job quality.

Minimum wage controversy is part of a bigger dispute on the importance of quantity vs. quality

This photo is part of a display assembled by Prof. Bharati Sethi of King's University College in London, Ont., on the subject of 'de-skilling.' It shows Alma, a former Mexican businesswoman, training as a welder.

Near the entrance to the Westmount Library in London, Ont., is a photograph of birds locked in a cage. Underneath, a caption is attributed to "Ding from the Philippines."

"Because I am an immigrant, I am not free to do what I like to do as far as employment is considered," reads the caption. "Because I am an immigrant, my Canadian experience and my education from the Philippines is not recognized here."

The photo is part of a display created by Bharati Sethi, a professor at King's University College in London who researches what she calls "de-skilling," the phenomenon where experienced immigrants languish in dead-end jobs due to their language ability, accent or lack of Canadian work experience.

At least it's a job

"Let's get them to work. At least they have a job," goes the thinking, says Sethi. But she says in the long term that's bad for the employees and bad for the entire workforce.

Sethi describes a woman who came to Canada at age 52 with marketing skills and who has worked for ten years as a personal support worker.

"She's absolutely miserable in that job," Sethi says. "But it was better than catching chickens because that was the first job she got."

'Better than catching chickens.' One skilled professional is miserable in her job as a personal support worker but it's a step up from her first one. (Mercy for Animals)

Some of the arguments against immigrant de-skilling will be familiar to those who have been following the debate for and against raising the minimum wage.

Critics of an increase in minimum wage to $15 in parts of Canada have warned that the policy will kill jobs. Businesses who hire those low-wage workers agree, saying they will be forced to phase out entry level positions, meaning fewer jobs overall.

Proponents of the increase say "good riddance" because the lowest quality jobs are the ones we don't want.

And this is the confusing thing about unemployment statistics that come out tomorrow in both Canada and the United States. The jobless figures are taken as a broad indicator of the health of the economy, but hidden within the figures is the less obvious measure of job quality.

Math stops working

As an economic barometer, there are many flaws in the jobless statistics. For example, working just a few hours a week takes you off the unemployment rolls. A dead-end job with low pay has just as much weight in the headline numbers as a cushy job with high pay.

But job quality matters.

There is a growing realization that the modern corporate model that prescribes increasingly lower wages and outsourcing is creating an unhealthy society.

It's something left-leaning U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and corporate titan Jeff Immelt of General Electric can agree on, says author and economic analyst Rana Foroohar.

"The idea was that cheaper stuff would offset the loss of jobs and lower wages," Foroohar writes in the Financial Times. "But in an economy made up of 70 per cent consumer spending in which wages haven't risen for most of the population since the 1990s, that math stops working."

Critics have said that increasing wages means jobs are more likely to be replaced by robots. Proponents say that may be so, but there will be more high-wage jobs in robot installation and repair.

Trapped in survival jobs

Young people starting out in precarious work of the kind Sethi refers to as "survival" jobs may not be sympathetic to "Ding from the Philippines" who isn't free to do the job he wants.

Many young people start out in survival jobs. Tesla and Space-X boss Elon Musk famously worked as a hand on his uncle's farm.

Immigrants in dead-end jobs often feel they have no way of escaping. 'Many immigrants change their name because their name becomes a barrier,' says 'Ding' in a caption to this photo, which is part of a display at the Westmount Library in London, Ont.

The difference is that like Elon Musk, young, educated, English-speaking Canadians are unlikely to stay in those entry level jobs.

Not so for the immigrants who get stuck in those kinds of jobs, seldom getting the chance to improve their language skills enough to move back into the jobs they'd originally trained to do overseas.

"What happens is, the more they are in those jobs," says Sethi, "the less there's the likelihood of them going up the ladder."

Meaningful work

Stuck in go-nowhere employment, the de-skilled can never participate fully in the Canadian economy. Training early on can give immigrants a first step on the ladder to more meaningful work. And as they upgrade their skills, they upgrade Canada's economic potential.

Sethi says part of the problem is what she calls "micro-racism," where people with foreign names just don't make the cut when applying for better jobs and employers fail to respect the intelligence of a potential employee with broken English.

There are many exceptions. One of the images in the Westmount Library display shows a woman who ran her own business in Mexico who has obtained training for high-skill, high-wage employment as a welder in southwestern Ontario.

Sethi describes another case where a personal support worker in a small Ontario town became a qualified nurse thanks in part to support from her employer and the community.

But high wages aren't everything. Sethi tells of one woman who had been a marketing executive and also taught Zumba dancing in her home country as a hobby. She now has a job teaching Zumba to seniors.

"She loves it," says Sethi. "It's a meaningful job, not just any job."

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Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.