Attendance at regional job fairs creates questions about labour shortage

After all the talk about economic development and a severe labour shortage recently, it was an eye-opening experience to attend a regional job fair on Wednesday in Owen Sound.

More than 75 employers and companies set up booths for the fair. While that’s impressive enough, it was the sheer number of people in attendance that left me more impressed.

It’s the fifth year for the event, which organizers say attracted approximately 1,000 people in 2017. While I always take such claims from organizers with a large grain of salt, Wednesday’s edition of the job fair was bidding to attract similar numbers by my independent count.

There were claims that more than 1,000 jobs were up for grabs at the job fair, so in simple mathematical terms, that meant that everyone coming out for the fair should have had a reasonable expectation of being hired, although perhaps not on the spot. Of course, that’s not realistic, since many people might be applying for the same jobs, but still…

While I was there, I didn’t see much sign of people being offered positions, although I did see some interviews happening.

What was interesting, though, were the stories being told by people attending the show. Several people told me, informally, that they had been hunting for jobs for months with no luck and with minimal responses from potential employers.

Now, to be fair, perhaps some of these people don’t have the most marketable skills. That’s certainly possible.

However, the type of job-hunting conditions and atmosphere they were describing just don’t strike me as being indicative of a market that is truly suffering from a shortage of workers. Instead, it appears the employers are not exactly in desperation mode.

I spoke to someone who expressed outright doubt about whether there are as many jobs available as employers claim. The same person also questioned the “quality” of what was available, which is another subject entirely.

One person asked me, rather plaintively, “why are employers so picky” when they say they can’t fill jobs and attract workers?

That’s a good question indeed, one that casts some immediate doubt on the narrative the economic development people are trying to weave about a labour shortage being the cause of all woes.

The truth of the situation, as always, will lie somewhere in the middle of these two echo chambers.

I have some outright doubt as to whether the labour shortage is as extreme as employers and business people claim, because their hiring activities just don’t smack of desperation.

Also, the readily-available stats might well be missing the considerable number of people who might like to work, but who aren’t actively looking for whatever reason.

I have no doubt that some segments of the labour market are finding it difficult to attract workers, and that’s due to a variety of factors ranging from public perception and word on the street, which might or might not be accurate, to wages and working conditions being insufficient to attract interest.

There are a lot of bridges between workers and employers that need to be built, but one thing is clear. If their claims about a serious labour shortage are accurate, it means the game has changed for employers in particular, and they need to adapt quickly and comprehensively to it. That’s not going to be easy, but it has to be done.

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