A higher education and professional career can be the gateway to many privileges — but amidst Canada’s shifting economic tides, job security isn’t always one of them, according to a new study.
A survey of 1,000 professionals across the country found that one in five are in precarious jobs, working contract-to-contract, part-time, or freelance. More than half of those in insecure employment said their income varied significantly, and 60 per cent said they don’t have pension plans or sick pay.
Conversely, 85 per cent of professionals with secure jobs had pensions and 94 per cent said they got paid if they were ill.
Regardless of job status, the study conducted by progressive think tank the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found a “widespread sense of economic insecurity,” with 58 per cent of all professionals surveyed reporting their job used to be more stable.
“A number of the hallmarks of precarious jobs in low-wage jobs like a pension plan, like a sick day, like a predictable income, a predictable schedule — all of those things were found in a good percentage of professional jobs,” said the report’s co-author Ricardo Tranjan.
“The key point is that when we talk about precarious jobs in Canada we tend to think about it as something to happen to low-wage jobs, but that is not the case.”
A study, completed in 2017 by two independent experts appointed by the Ontario government, found that almost half of low-income earners in the province are in precarious jobs. Research for the Law Commission of Ontario, based on 2008 data, found that workers with less than a high school diploma as well as recent immigrants, women and people of colour, are overrepresented amongst vulnerable workers.
While the CCPA study shows those with a higher education in professional careers have a better shot at stable employment, its findings “challenged the idea that well-paid professionals opt for non-traditional working conditions,” with 57 per cent of professionals in precarious roles saying they would prefer a better job.
“When we see professions in traditional occupations (precariously employed) it really drives home the point that it is management decisions that are making jobs more precarious,” he said.
Some 22 per cent of professionals surveyed in Ontario and Quebec were in precarious jobs — slightly lower than the 25 per cent reported in the Prairies. British Columbia and the Maritimes had a slightly lower rate, at 20 and 17 per cent respectively.
Being a “precarious professional” comes with significant financial implications, the report found, with those in unstable careers twice as likely as those in a secure job to make less than $60,000 a year.
The study, entitled “No Safe Harbour: Precarious Work and Economic Insecurity Among Skilled Professionals in Canada,” defined a professional as someone who is in a job that requires specialized credentials or is considered high skilled. While the research found employment insecurity across all occupations, the report noted there was a higher proportion in education, health care and finance or administrative jobs.
Tiffany Cooper is an occasional teacher with the Waterloo Region District School Board and spent 12 years on the supply list. Along with coping with an erratic schedule, she says she rarely cleared more than $20,000 a year in her role and for eight years picked up a second job in a store.
Recently, she had major surgery, which meant she couldn’t work for four months and couldn’t access medical benefits.
“It’s extremely challenging for a lot of people and it’s frustrating for a lot of people,” she said.
“The perception (about job quality) has changed amongst teachers,” she added. “I don’t think it has amongst the public.”
Young professionals were slightly more likely to experience precarity at the outset of their career, the CCPA’s research found, noting that young people were entering the job market in a period of “significant change.” The majority — 60 per cent — of precarious professionals were women, the report said.
“It feels like the economy in North America doesn’t give you reasons to stick around,” said Kate Fulton, 33, who recently landed her first permanent job at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.
After teaching in South Korea following her graduation from the University of Guelph, she returned to Canada to “put down roots,” initially moving to Alberta. Although she describes her role at the Banff Centre as “an awesome job,” she says working contract-to-contract for two years made it difficult to put down roots or plan for the future.
“It’s such a different philosophy from previous generations. Emotionally, the hardest part is justifying it to family.”
She says job insecurity also makes it difficult for employers to retain talented employees and institutional knowledge.
“It means no one gets in the groove … it seems like such a bad long-term plan, but of course they are looking really short term.”
The CCPA report also noted a “surprisingly higher incidence” of job insecurity amongst older workers between 55 to 64.
“There were a number of myths this report addressed. One of them is this notion that job precarity is something that impacts folks entering the job market, but eventually, they gain a lot of experience and they will be fine thereafter. That’s not what we found,” Tranjan said.
Tranjan said the transformation of the manufacturing sector — once precarious, now often praised for solid wages, security and benefits — offers a blueprint for improving job quality.
“What happened was unions and government legislation,” he said.
Last year, the Ontario government revamped its workplace laws with an eye to offering more protection to precarious workers through Bill 148, which upped the minimum wage from $11.60 to $14 an hour in 2018 and promised to increase it to $15 in 2019. It also introduced two paid emergency leave days, made it easier for some workers to unionize, and mandated equal pay for equal work for part-time, casual, and temporary employees.
The province’s new Minister of Labour Laurie Scott is “now considering the recent changes made and their impact on the overall economy,” said ministry spokesperson Janet Deline.
Premier Doug Ford has said his government will freeze the minimum wage at $14.