Less Work Ahead

MACLEANS.CA(Excerpt from Maclean’s, By Ross Laver, April 26,1999)

When the experts on Bay Street want to measure the strength of the country’s economy, they study all sorts of arcane indicators, from the number of housing starts to the pace of industrial production.Colleen Clarke prefers an easier method: the Toronto-based career consultant simply counts the number of people who attend her weekly job-hunting seminars. During the recession and downsizing wave of the early 1990’s Clarke’s presentations drew an average of 85 men and women, many of whom were feeling devastated after being laid off for the first time in their lives.

These days, the weekly turnout is more like 40 or 45, and the mood is noticeably more buoyant. ” The difference is unbelievable, really,” says Clarke, 46, founder and executive director of the Executive Advancement Resource Network (EARN), a nonprofit group for unemployed business managers and executives. “It’s a bit like a golf score-we know we’re doing well when fewer people contact us.”

It’s not just Clarke’s organization that is doing well. Since the beginning of the year the national unemployment rate has been holding steady at 7.8 per cent, down from an average of 11.3 per cent in 1992 and lower than at any time since the dying days of the 1980’s economic boom. In Clarke’s home province of Ontario, the country’s industrial heartland, the jobless rate is 6.4 per cent, thanks to a booming manufacturing sector, strong exports to the United States and higher spending by Canadian consumers. As a result, the outlook for laid-off workers has improved dramatically since the beginning of the decade, when factories across the country were closing and many experts were warning of the potential for double-digit jobless rates for the rest of the decade. But the latest unemployment numbers also beg an obvious question: will the labour market continue to improve, or is this- as recent history appears to suggest-about as good as it gets?