A few hundred union workers mark international worker's day on May 1 in Quebec City. Quebec trade unions suggest they like the idea of upgrading skills - but they want companies to pay.
What do the travails at Teleglobe, the copper smelter closure in Murdochville, the meeting of G8 labour ministers and May Day have in common?
They have brought into focus a policy debate over the concepts of "labour market flexibility" and "lifelong learning," ways to hedge against the vagaries of the work world.
Those two buzz phrases were on everyone's lips at the recent meeting of Group of Eight labour and employment ministers in Montreal.
In the past, most people got an education when they were young, spent their middle years working and retired when they were old. No longer.
Nations like ours are moving away from traditional industries towards more service and value-added manufacturing jobs. It's Bombardier now, not Noranda; jet planes, not copper smelters.
Under this new reality, and with a labour shortage on the horizon as babyboomers enter the last stage of their careers, "flexible" workers willing to reinvent themselves will be increasingly in demand.
Whether they're switching jobs within their company, or are laid off in a suffering sector like telecommunications, they're going to need new skills and be available where and when the work is.
"Because of the impact of technological change, all of us need to re-learn, re-educate, re-equip ourselves at different stages in our working life," said Malcolm Wicks, Britain's junior minister of work and pensions.
"And I think the more we enable citizens to do that, the more we can move towards the vision of a fully employed society, which brings with it social inclusion."
It's the new reality's social mission: With training, unemployed "marginals" like young drop-outs will get off the street and underemployed people like single mothers will get off welfare.
The downside? Flex hours in medicocre jobs, at least for some workers.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development notes that bad jobs don't disappear when the economy is good - in fact, they become the rule.
"The incidence of non-standard forms of employment (short-term contracts, temporary jobs, casual employment, etc.) did not decline in many countries during the prolonged upswing of recent years," according to an OECD briefing paper used at the Montreal G8 meeting.
"Some argue that these trends signal increased labour market flexibility and allow individuals to balance paid work with other activities - including family responsibilities.
"On the other hand, others are concerned that they could undermine job security and career prospects."
In France, where labour law since the early 1970s has been heavily pro-union, things have already begun to change, said Vincent Merle, a top French employment ministry official.
French unions now agree that people are responsible for upgrading their skills themselves - for example, by taking training courses on their own time, not just on the company's, he said.
Is it too much to ask? G8 citizens now pay out of pocket for private schools, evening classes, home computers and other things that give them an edge over less skilled workers, said German labour expert Roland Schneider.
"There is already huge private investment in learning," Schneider, an adviser to the OECD. "We're against shifting the burden of training away from governments and employers to individuals."
Quebec trade unions like the idea of upgrading skills - but they want companies to pay.
"It's a matter of urgency that we adapt to the new realities of the labour market," the Confederation of National Trade Unions said in a press release at the end of the G8 summit.
Globalization and new technologies, and the shortages caused by an aging work force mean "companies need to take a deep look at the way knowledge and competence is acquired."
Can Canada strike a balance between corporate and worker interests?
At the close of the G8 meeting, federal human resources minister Jane Stewart said the answer will have to come from the field: from business, labour and from workers themselves.
"Governments can't do it all themselves," she said.
And "individuals (must) understand the importance that lifelong learning is going to have to their own success."
- To read the OECD report and other material from the G8 labour ministers' conference, consult the official Web site at www.g8montreal2002.ca.
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