The ‘laziness’ problem in Queens

“People here are lazy. They don’t want to work. They’re happy collecting welfare.”

That’s the Queens County gospel according to some — but certainly not to me.

Since moving here, I’ve heard this litany of complaints more times than I can count. But it doesn’t ring true. The problem, as I see it, is not lazy people. It’s apathetic business owners and managers.

A coalition of local businesses has repeatedly mounted expensive public relations campaigns highlighting the number of unfilled positions they have. They’ve paid for newspaper ads, courted media coverage and carpet-bombed social media platforms. In all of these initiatives, there’s been a nasty undercurrent of blaming and shaming the unemployed and under-employed.

My recent opinion piece about the introduction of self-serve checkouts at the Liverpool Superstore somehow ignited the “laziness” discussion yet again. The crankiest voice in that conversation was the owner of a new local business. (I’m not sure beating up on disadvantaged people is a good way to build clientele, but what the heck do I know?)

Of course not all business owners participate in this bullying. We have a number of great employers here, who genuinely care for their employees and want to be good corporate citizens. They care for their workers. They value and reward them. They go the extra mile.

These types of businesses have little trouble finding employees. Their reputation precedes them in the community, prompting people to want to work for them. As for turnover, they don’t have many issues there, either. In fact, I’d suggest any business with high turnover in this market needs to take a long look in the mirror.

Still, there are legitimate questions and concerns. Why are so few people of working age actively involved (employed or looking) in the local labour market? The participation rate in Queens is 48.4 per cent, compared to 61.3 per cent provincially and 65.2 per cent nationally. Why such a dramatic difference?

One possible explanation is education rates. According to the 2016 census, 20.11 per cent of Queens residents aged 25-64 have no certificate, diploma or degree. The Nova Scotia average is 12.19 per cent and the Canadian rate is 11.46 per cent. The vast majority of employers ask for at least a high school education, instantly excluding one-fifth of Queens County’s potential workforce.

Another issue could be the lower-than-average availability of full-time jobs. Only 43.18 per cent of jobs in Queens are full-time, compared to 50.53 provincially and 49.72 nationally. For many, part-time hours simply aren’t enough to pay the bills. Social assistance may be the only viable option for someone to make ends meet for themselves and their families. (Don’t judge someone if you don’t understand the difficult choices they face.)

In addition to that, it sure doesn’t help that Nova Scotia’s minimum wage is a paltry $11 an hour, the second-lowest in the country. Saskatchewan is set to raise its minimum wage to $11.06 on Oct. 1, so we’ll soon be at the very bottom of the barrel.

Of course, no one is forcing businesses to pay just the minimum wage. That’s a choice they make. If they fail to meet human resources targets because of low wages, that’s their fault, not the public’s. Businesses often slash prices to attract customers. Why don’t they hike wages to attract employees?

And it’s not just more money that appeals to workers. What about offering full-time positions, predictable shifts and reliable hours? What about introducing a rewards or milestone program? What about providing or paying for transportation? What about helping with child care expenses?

Do something to set yourself apart from other employers and you’ll get all the applicants you can handle.

When I was training to become a commissioned officer in the army, I was taught the Canadian Forces’ principles of leadership. One of them, in particular, has stuck with me through the years: Know your soldiers and promote their welfare.

If you’re an employer who’s having trouble finding workers, learn and live this principle. Know your employees. Promote their welfare. Do these two things well and your human resources challenges will disappear.