Starting over in life

Ever since humankind first discovered a lever would help them move things heavier than themselves, technology has been changing the way we work.

  • Feb. 4, 2011 3:00 p.m.

Employment consultant Will Gow talks to a group of Okanagan residents attending a recent weekly morning career workshop at Career and Business Development Network office in Kelowna.

Ever since humankind first discovered a lever would help them move things heavier than themselves, technology has been changing the way we work.

In the Okanagan, the effects of new types of jobs and the transition of job types are beginning to be felt in the area labour market.

Trevor Davis has lived in the Okanagan for all of his life, from Osoyoos to Kelowna.

He never really had trouble finding a job, and taught himself computers through his work at manufacturing companies.

But in 2009, Davis lost his job due to the slowdowns caused by the recession. He was department head of a customer service team, and a skilled employee.

“The company gave me a good severance. They didn’t want to see me go.”

But when the economy started to heal, Davis found getting back into a new job was not as easy.

He noted companies are looking for more technically trained people, with more post-secondary education and a higher level of computer knowledge.

Davis found other work through a career placement agency.

He said he may be computer literate, but many employers are looking for somebody that has a natural degree of aptitude for technology.

Recent reports from the Central Okanagan Economic Development Commission indicated they saw a need to attract young families and professionals to the area to keep the economy going.

Davis asked what happens to employees who are already here, with a considerable skillset to offer.

He noted if the trend continues, half the people in his age and work category won’t have jobs.

Staying employed under those circumstances often means working for less money.

Davis noted older people often cannot retire as they might have wanted.

He said the mature worker has plenty of experience to offer and knows what it takes to satisfy an employer.

He said there should be an incentive program in the Okanagan to take advantage of the available mature workforce.

Davis noted technical people are in demand, but employers should also be able to take advantage of that workforce that still would have been working.

Davis believes the economy will recover to where it once was, but admits he would also look to younger workers if put in the position of today’s business owners.

He said for the people who laid him off at age 59 with the expectations of calling him back, their situation will have changed.

And early retirement may not be an option when pink slips come calling in your late 50s.

Davis noted that having never gone past Grade 12 or earned enough money to put retirement savings aside, his assets are limited to the equity on his home.

He pointed to the void of an agency like Labour Ready, which employs temporary workers in industries like manufacturing, construction, warehousing and retail.

“Where’s a Labour Ready for 58 to 65 to 70 year-old men who want a job and still have a lot to offer?”

Davis is far from alone in his situation.

He did find replacement work, in a company that wanted him to run a software program that inputs work orders.

He had helped develop such a system at a previous job, and knows how extensive a task it can be.

He pointed out that when he went to a new company with his experience in developing such a system, they still wanted someone to be able to perform the task even faster.

“Technology is where it’s at. I love it in a way, but it’s changed the work dynamic hugely.”

Will Gow, owner of Career and Business Development Network, noted that statistically every age group struggles in finding work.

He pointed out the labour market in the Okanagan is a difficult one.

“The nature of the Valley right now is we’ve been through some difficult times. This is going to continue for a while longer.”

During the shutdown of Brenda Mines in 1990, Gow saw that the older group of workers were quicker to find re-employment, with more experience in the job search and developed abilities in networking.

“They knew from experience what they had to do.”

In Gow’s line of work, he noted 70 to 75 per cent of job seekers in the area are consistently finding work that’s not advertised.

He added that even if the job seekers are new to the Okanagan, mature workers are often skilled at building and maintaining connections.

“They’re more adept at the face-to-face.”

Strength in technology is not the only requirement for Okanagan employers.

Gow noted finding a position has just as much to do with the quality of fit a person is within the larger workplace.

Valley employers are relationship-driven, and look for employees that are a comfortable fit as well as having the necessary skills and abilities.

He pointed out older workers bring a grounding and a sense of maturity to work, and know instinctively what has to be done.

Gow said the 25 to 35 age group has not yet had the same experience.

But really every age group is having its struggles. “We just have a very tight labour market right now.”

Gow pointed out the mature worker is actually in a better position. Companies need stability and insight, and don’t know where the market is going to go.

Gow pointed out that older workers finding success in the job search comes from their attitude more than anything else.

He has also heard the age complaint from 25-year-old job hunters.

For the job seekers going through Gow’s agency, he found every age group consistently had the same success rates, and each group had their own reasons for difficulty.

He pointed out youth in the Okanagan have some of the highest unemployment rates at the moment. There are just not enough jobs to absorb the population numbers.

Gow noted mature workers face a different challenge, with their success depending on the way they position themselves in the market.

He pointed out that job search in the Okanagan is daunting, and just as challenging for each group. It can be difficult for mature workers to put aside a sense of self-worth gained from years of experience in a particular career.

Gow said companies are looking at the reality of what an employee can do for them today.

The key, according to Gow, is transferrable skills.

He pointed to people who are focused on who they are and what they can do for a company, along with showing that they are keeping up with technology, from office software to social media and communications channels.

Gow said he has been amazed at the number of people who don’t take advantage of social networking to leverage themselves professionally.

Another piece of the puzzle has to do with an attitude toward business.

Gow said companies want people who can fit in, earn revenue and provide stability to their teams in changing times.

He noted job seekers have to come across as both flexible enough to change to keep pace with what’s happening, and also grounded.

What adds challenge is that many people cannot change, regardless of age.

Gow said a recruiter giving a talk at his agency said he looks for clients that are more self-aware, and that the older age group have not taken the time to become more self-aware, meaning that people have not taken the time to examine their skills, their career path and where they fit in the job market.

But the difficulty in becoming re-employed may not have to do with how many jobs are available.

Gow pointed to a study done by Dr. Rick Miner on the future of the Ontario labour market. Miner’s research indicates that as the wave of baby boomers continue to retire, there will be an increasing number of jobs available.

He believes the jobs that become open in the emerging knowledge economy will go begging because there will be few candidates with the skills and education required to fill them.

Miner’s study outlines the need for both a larger and more educated workforce to fill this gap.

Gow said the Central Okanagan lies in a similar position, and he is already gearing up in preparation for the situation. He pointed to the numbers of positions open at Interior Health.

At the time of writing, there were 72 open jobs listed at the Interior Health Authority, not counting physicians.

“Look at the hundreds of jobs open in some sectors, yet we have 8.5 per cent unemployment.”

For the older worker looking for new opportunities in the labour market, Gow said literacy is important, and adaptability will help ultimately see them through.

“Their adaptability is really their key to survival.”

Kenneth Carlaw is an associate professor of economics at UBC Okanagan. Some of his research addresses how economies evolve as technologies change throughout history.

Carlaw said in most cases, the onset of new technologies is usually a double-edged sword in its effect on the labour market. The change is usually beneficial for those people positioned with the right skills at the time the technology is picked up and adopted.

But the transition period can be more difficult for people without those skills. Carlaw pointed out the second group usually loses out initially because their own skill set isn’t as valued anymore.

For the smaller emerging group, the type of skills that make them successful are specific to the type of technology involved.

Carlaw noted currently there is demand in the areas of information technology, electronics and associated industry. Emerging demand for people is also present in biotechnology, electronic transactions and communications.

“All of those things seem to be in relatively high demand.”

Carlaw said for the group of workers not positioned with the best skills for the newly adopted technologies, they typically go through a period of transition. This involves acquiring new skills and retraining. He added there is also a dislocation for a period of time.

“The sector that they’re working in is shrinking relative to what it used to be.”

Carlaw noted the new job sector slowly draws in the labour pool as people become more skilled at working with new technology.

“There’s definitely winners and losers in those scenarios.”

He pointed out the effects of such a transition have not been dramatically seen in the Okanagan, with an economy built primarily on tourism and agriculture, along with steel fabrication and some new activities.

Carlaw noted there has not been a real dislocation of the labour pool for those industries, but added there may have been more impact in management areas of those industries where information can be processed more readily.

Places where there are core groups of people, such as head offices for larger companies, typically see more impact from a transition period to new technologies.

Carlaw said while the Okanagan may be in a better position than those places, that could change.

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