Flying high without a safety net


Aliens are alive and well and working among us. I know this because several years ago I set up the first meetings between Business New Brunswick and local businesses to discuss the possibility of Romanian immigration. Now they’re here. Whether these newcomers will settle in here or move on is yet to be seen.

Immigration can be a lightning rod topic. Sometimes locals feel that the newcomers are appropriating jobs that they might have had. Sometimes locals become culturally territorial and don’t want intruders distorting the existing culture with new language, mannerisms, ethnic food or whatever else they bring with them from the “old country”. Sometimes locals can just be plain aloof.

That doesn’t appear to be the case here in Charlotte County. As far as I can tell the Romanians have dovetailed nicely into the aquaculture, fish plant and low level manufacturing jobs recently vacated by Newfoundlanders and others who have migrated west to the oil sands projects. If anything, there still seems to be a shortage of able-bodied workers in the region.

The modern country we know as Canada was built on immigration. Scots came with the fur trade. The Loyalists returned from the American Colonies. The Irish came later followed by the Ukrainians, Poles and Chinese who helped build the national railway. Migrations have always been a part of human history, and in truth migrations are human history.

But something else seems to be happening with respect to global migration. Multinational corporations have become migrants, seeking ever-cheaper resources and sources of labour. Rather than relocating workers to other countries, corporations now relocate operations closer to the workers. Through third-party producers, raw materials are shipped to the workers, and finished goods are shipped from the workers to the customers living half a world away.

This has had a dramatic hollowing out effect on the U.S. Rustbelt states—and indeed the much of the once thriving manufacturing capacity here in Charlotte County. Gone are the North American unionized manufacturing jobs—and whole industrial zones. Entire career paths have been erased, from sign-painters to patternmakers, as computerized robotics replace workers domestically, and inexpensive workers take over the assembly jobs relocated in far away places.

Meanwhile, over the past 40 years profit-hungry companies have offloaded costs in the form of expensive responsibilities to employees. Today, many jobs today are only contract positions with no benefits or pension plans, as companies transfer these to the individual workers, who must provide for their own retirement and health care. Dual income families have become the norm, and two generations of kids have now been institutionalized from daycare to post-graduate school without ever having a full time parent in the home.

Even while corporations have migrated, or migrated their purchasing patterns, workers continue to migrate toward jobs. These migrations come in two classes: urban and resource-based. A clear example of classical resource-based worker migration can be seen in the recent tension between Saint John and Alberta, in which both energy hubs are seeking the same skill sets.

Urban migrations are a more modern phenomenon. In developing countries all around the world people are migrating to large urban centres as agribusiness displaces them from their farms. This holds true in the developed world. Today, less than 2 percent of the American workforce is engaged in farming. But urban migrations are much more complex than the rural-urban transition. Entire urban landscapes have become specialized. Houston, for example, is a high tech hub. As such, it attracts engineers from around the world, and boasts a vibrant and affluent Asian population in its Sugar Land suburb.

Specialized communities have created a different kind of cultural distortion as individual experts seek jobs in these cities. In fact I ran across an example this weekend. A visiting tourism coordinator lives close to her work in Florida with her mother and daughter, while her husband, a financial planner, lives close to his work in Boston. They separate for the winter, and join up every summer in Massachusetts. In a few years they’ll both retire and move to Jackson Hole, Wyoming to be close to world class skiing while their daughter attends an Ivy League school back east. They’re the post-modern, post-industrial family.

In his latest book, Gray’s Anatomy, philosopher John Gray mentions migration in a 1998 essay on globalization. He first speaks to the effects of global commerce, then forecasts the recent banking collapse, and finally identifies two of hallmarks of globalization: “delocalizing” and “deskilling”.

This caught my attention. For some time I’ve been mulling over the idea of “relocalizing” and “reskilling” our regional economy relative to the most daunting challenge of all: the inevitable decline of fossil fuel. Gray, among many others, sees fossil fuel as the major driver of the world’s spectacular technological and economic growth over the past 150 years. And he sees delocalizing and deskilling as the principal symptoms of this transition.

Of course what he means by delocalizing is that in a global economy we are inextricably linked to every human activity on earth. Everything we do is dependent on something happening somewhere else. Our food tomorrow is dependent on the weather in Mexico or the rainfall in California today. Confidence in our stock market today was affected Abu Dhabi bailing out Dubai World yesterday to the tune of $10 billion.

It’s clear that today’s economy is not local. And it’s equally clear that few of us have the skills to survive outside the global economy. And it’s this interdependence that makes our present system so completely vulnerable. The thin, fragile web of commerce can be easily disrupted, as we’ve seen in the financial meltdown over the past 18 months.

Other than “repurposing, relocalizing, retooling and reskilling” our local population what can we do? There are examples. One is the World Wide Web. Another is Al-Qaeda. Both institutions are based on a cellular approach to stability. In other words, both entities have been designed to function even when pieces of them are cut away and destroyed.

At present our local economy doesn’t have such a failsafe mechanism. The residents of Charlotte County would be hard pressed to supply their own food, let alone supply their own energy requirements. Forget about tools and clothing, we produce none of those.

And given that we’ve been exporting our best and brightest young minds for decades, it’s unlikely that we’ll be relocalizing—or desktopping—portions of the global mainframe economy any time soon.

The best we can do is fasten our seatbelts.


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