POLITICS

Labour shortage and work ethic chief concerns for new small business group head

06/08/2012 07:30 EDT | Updated 08/08/2012 05:12 EDT
A labour and skills shortage and an eroding work ethic are among the chief concerns for the new head of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the advocacy group for small and medium-sized businesses.

Canada's demographics indicate the country is headed for a labour shortage in many pockets of the country where jobs can't be filled at times "where there are people on unemployment," said Dan Kelly, who was named Friday as the new president of the lobby group, succeeding long-time president Catherine Swift.

The federation's members in Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador are the most likely to say they're short of workers, said Kelly, an 18-year veteran at the organization.

"We're more worried about the shortage of labour than unemployment at the moment," Kelly said in an interview from Toronto.

Kelly pledged to continue the federation's focus on changes to the immigration system, temporary foreign worker program and proposed changes to the federal government's unemployment insurance program.

The government has recently announced changes to the EI system that could force unemployed Canadians to take lower-paying jobs outside their preferred occupations.

Kelly said Canadians shouldn't have the view they're above doing some jobs and at the same time look unfavourably on temporary foreign workers or immigrants doing those jobs.

"So who the heck do we get to lay the bricks, to pour the concrete, to work on the farm, to work in the personal care homes?" he asked.

He added that employers need to do their part and step up on wages and benefits, as well as improve working conditions to attract and keep workers.

"But we've got to make sure we don't erode our work ethic to such a degree that we become so delicate as Canadians that we would rather sit on unemployment or stand in the street in protest than actually get to work, make a living and build our economy."

"That is a big worry for me because a lot of small businesses are telling me that the erosion in the work ethic is pretty significant."

Kelly said he doesn't want to discourage students from pursuing a post-secondary education but added that trades workers, like plumbers, electricians and brick layers, are needed and they are well paid.

Canada's job-creation machine slowed in May following two big months of employment gains but turned out 7,700 additional jobs — slightly more than expected and enough to keep the unemployment rate unchanged at 7.3 per cent.

The increase was due to the addition of self-employed, government and part-time workers, which offset a decline in full-time employment in the private sector — possibly a sign of that Canadian businesses were cautious about adding jobs.

"Things domestically seem to be holding together quite well, but small businesses read the papers and listen to the news and what's going on internationally, that uncertainty internationally, is absolutely among the dampening of optimism among small and medium-sized companies," Kelly said.

Swift, who held the top jobs at the CFIB since the mid-1990s has become a well-known advocate for small and mid-sized Canadian businesses, lobbying the government on their behalf.

"My job is to continue the incredibly high profile advocacy efforts that Catherine has led for 17 years. She has been an unbelievable powerhouse in Ottawa and with governments across Canada," he said of Swift.

Prof. Ken Wong of Queen's University School of Business said most businesses the federation represents have few employees and don't have the time to individually lobby governments.

"Each of those individuals has a business to run and because they're relatively small, of course, the owner-operator really has to play multiple roles and that doesn't leave them a whole lot of time to get involved in other activities," Wong said from Kingston, Ont.

"When do they have a chance to get to Ottawa and make a representation and if they do, speaking as an employer of five to seven people, how much impact does that have?"

Kelly also waded into the debate over credit card fees charged to merchants, saying the federation will encourage consumers to pay more with their Interact debit cards, which charge businesses owners lower fees than credit card companies.

The federal Competition Bureau is currently fighting credit card giants MasterCard and Visa over the fees they charge to small businesses.

Wong said he expects Kelly to continue to be very involved in that issue.

"My suspicion would be that Kelly will be a real bear on the finance side in terms of dealing with credit cards," Wong said.

"We are on the verge of a payments revolution with the ability to do things over smartphones and so on. There are a lot of things that represent really dangerous costs for a small business. So it will be interesting to see what he does there."

Kelly has been with the federation for the past 18 years — originally in the Prairie region and more recently at CFIB's national headquarters in Ottawa.

The federation represents more than 100,000 businesses in all parts of the country and all sectors of the economy.