Labour force is operating at two speeds

Finding good jobs appears difficult, but in some sectors employees are in such short supply that they are being poached. People whose skills are in demand now, though, may find that their popularity will not last indefinitely.

Workers with skills in demand are getting poached while others can't find jobs

While unemployment figures show there are not enough good jobs to go around, that is not so in the tech sector. Waterloo-based Clearpath Robotics, whose CEO is Matt Rendall, is an example of company operating in a business where employees are in short supply. (Canadian Press)

It seems increasingly as if the job market has divided in two. There is the group of people that everybody wants, and those that nobody wants.

New numbers out of Statistics Canada on Friday showed the economy added a healthy 59,000 jobs in May, but the long-term trend both in Canada and the U.S. is still one of sluggish economic growth, major layoffs including Target Canada and Future Shop, plus the oil downturn.

All those factors add up to mean that more often than not, jobs can be in short supply in North America.

But a story out of the United States this week opened a window on a completely different world of employment. It involved the ride-sharing company Uber and the robotics department at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University.

Uber is not just anxious to replace taxi drivers. It wants to replace human drivers altogether.

To that end it swept in and poached 40 of the key staff at the Carnegie Mellon National Robotics Engineering Centre. The university is crying foul, saying Uber took advantage of a co-operation agreement to gut its program.

But for the scientists hired away to work in Uber's own Pittsburgh robotics centre, it was a simple matter of accepting a better offer. 

"For those people, this is a wonderful opportunity," Uber's robotic car research boss John Bares said at a Pittsburgh conference this week. "A lot of people moved out to pursue a vision that, quite frankly, is hugely important to each and every one of them."

A subtle art

This is an extreme case, but it is an example of a much wider phenomenon. While many people go begging for work, in other fields there are never enough. In such a climate, keeping employees with specialized skills in high-demand areas is a subtle art that can be crucial to a company's success.

In the technology sector even junior employees are required to sign non-compete agreements, meaning that when they leave they cannot work for another company in the same field for a period, usually between six months and two years.

Lawmakers in the U.S. are trying to change those rules, saying they are being abused to keep lower wage employees from changing jobs. 

For higher level employees in the private sector non-competes are commonplace. The lack of such agreements in a university setting may have been what made Carnegie Mellon a target.

Hiring the bright sparks 

One of Canada's leaders in the field of robots, Waterloo-based Clearpath Robotics, was formed by four University of Waterloo graduates. The firm is considered an innovation leader, attracting venture capital funding and hiring bright sparks from U of W's computer and engineering programs.

Usually forthcoming, no one from Clearpath would even discuss the issue on the record. But University of Waterloo labour economist Larry Smith, who teaches some the brightest students emerging from Waterloo, describes a cutthroat market in high demand professions.

Smith, who is famous for his TED talk that has accumulated nearly 4 million hits, provocatively titled "Why you will fail to have a great career," is cynical about the current job market.

"Good jobs are now disappearing," he said in his quirky, contrarian presentation. "There are great jobs and great careers and then there are the high workload, high stress, blood sucking, soul destroying kinds of jobs, and practically nothing in between."

Regarding the effort to keep high-demand employees on board, he also divides the world of work in two. Employees with technical skills currently in short supply are "merely" bribed with high wages and perks like free food and massages. 

"But those are not the stars," said Smith in a telephone interview. "Those are people with a technical talent that is in short supply."

A sense of mission

Smith says money can influence the most brilliant people too, but he says that wears off quickly.

"If you asked me what would keep the most talented of UW students at their place of employment, the thing that would work best is a sense of mission," says Smith. "They want to help change the world."

And from his experience that doesn't mean just the big companies. Often, he says, a smaller company can have a bigger impact.

But those people who are so hot right now may not be hot forever.

Smith says the race to build robotic cars is at a crucial point. If Uber wins that race its business model, for which it raised so many billions of dollars, will be a success. 

But if Google or someone else creates a functioning driverless car first, anyone, including the taxi companies that are Uber's chief competitors, can beat Uber at its own game. At that point the panic to hire robotics engineers may be over.

Smith remembers something similar happening when the internet was being expanded in the 1990s. At that time there was nothing better than being a communications engineer. But when that project was complete, the jobs went, too. 

"They terminated all the communications engineers, and that was thousands of them, that couldn't find a job anyplace."


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis 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. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.


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