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The future of Quebec jobs
The benefits of job creation in the new economy will be shared more and more democratically thoughout society, says Judith Maxwell, president of the Canadian Public Policy Research Network, an Ottawa-based think tank.
That process will accelerate in coming years, although Quebec is still playing catch-up to Ontario, Maxwell said at a McGill conference on job creation last week.
"In Quebec, in the natural and applied sciences, people working on installing and maintaining computer systems have enjoyed 20 percent job growth in the last three years. But in Ontario, job growth in that field has been 52 percent. This is evidence that we have reached the stage, in Ontario, in which the new technologies have penetrated across the whole society, in sectors like manufacturing, mining, education and services. Ontario is at or close to a technological critical mass. But Quebec still has work to do in that regard."
Numerous theories were advanced during the panel discussion to explain why Quebec is lagging behind Ontario. "We achieved a consensus on job creation goals [during Quebec's 1996 summit on the economy and employment], but no consensus on how to reach those goals," said Université de Montréal industrial relations professor Jean Charest.
"Another problem was that the government's zero deficit goal entailed Draconian budget cuts which slowed down job creation," he added.
Andrew Sharpe, president of the Centre for the Study of Living Standards, said that Ontario's automotive sector has acted as an engine for rapid growth and technological change. In addition, Quebec's high-tech industries are mostly concentrated in Montreal and they don't tend to benefit other regions, "while Ontario's is spread out over a larger area of the province, including Ottawa, Toronto and Waterloo."
Maxwell says that Quebec is lagging behind because the recession hit harder here in the early 1990s, and that uncertainty surrounding the 1995 referendum delayed the recovery.
"Quebec has the base of knowledge and a number of very successful companies, but we haven't yet seen the degree of commitment across all types of industries which would be necessary to get the big payoff in terms of future job creation and growth."
But as Quebec closes the gap, new economy jobs will increasingly be filled by people without a computer background. Maxwell quoted Université de Montreal rector Robert Lacroix, who said in a recent speech that high-tech does not just mean jobs for computer geeks.
"He had visited a Quebec company that makes computer games, and found that half of its employees were from the social sciences. So if you focus on the natural and applied sciences group, that is the tail that wags the dog. Once the hardware and software technology is in place, there are jobs for a lot more people."
In an interview following her presentation, Maxwell asserted that this broad-based economic impact will more than offset the inequalities between the technological haves and have-nots.
"The high-tech infrastructure is like the highways, canals and railways that we built 100 years ago. We are building a different infrastructure now, but we'll all travel on that road."
Computer experts are always the first to enjoy the high-tech gold mine, but never the last.
"The first wave of beneficiaries are the experts and technicians, and the companies, like Nortel, which produce the hardware and software. But the second wave of beneficiaries are the companies that use the technologies to do their business differently -- for example, business to business e-commerce -- and the individuals who transform the way they manage information."
She noted that this rapid change is turbulent, throwing some out of work, while others have to be trained to learn how to hang on to their jobs.
To address the sudden inequalities, society will have to make a greater investment in literacy programs.
"First there is the issue of access to computers, which is being partially addressed by initiatives like putting computers in libraries. But then there is also the question of what kind of work can you find if you're not a literate person?
"The good jobs in the future will require a high level of literacy, in the traditional sense of reading, writing, and being able to analyze and understand what you read, which will be even more important than computer literacy."
The melding of high-tech and low-tech skills will increasingly mirror the blurring lines between the old and new economies.
"The new economy lives beside the old economy, and I think in another five years, we won't be able to see the difference."
The conference was organized by the Quebec Studies Program and the Fonds de solidarité FTQ.