Speck versus plank

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye, with never a thought for the great plank in your own? Or how can you say to your brother, “let me take the speck out of your eye”, when all the time there is that plank in your own? You hypocrite! First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s.
Matthew 7:3-5

No, this is not a blog about hypocrisy. It’s about missing the point. It’s about focusing on a speck of sawdust and missing the plank.

CBC national radio news ran a story today about the call centre HelpDeskNow and the theme was that they were incentive shopping. As the story went, HelpDeskNow set up in rural PEI with government incentives. Then, they closed the PEI facility and moved it to New Brunswick where they got more incentives. After NB’s incentives run out, watch out!, they will move again to Nova Scotia.

Now Jacques Poitras’ piece is good news – it must be – it made the national news. But I was a little disappointed that the plank is staring us all in the face and we can’t even see it.

Before I get to the plank, though, here’s a little basic economics. HelpDeskNow got $5,000/per worker as an incentive – that might cover, even in a ‘low end’ call centre, 2-3 months worth of costs per employee (wages, benefits, training, equipment, etc.) so unless HDN is moving every 3 months the basic premise of ‘incentive shopping’ doesn’t make much sense. But that’s not my point.

My question is this. In an area where there are over 28,000 people within a 45 minute radius of the HDN call center on western PEI, an unemployment rate that hovers between 15% and 20% and literally thousands of people on Employment Insurance, how come HelpDeskNow couldn’t find a measly 40-50 people to work in a call centre? Sure, the wages weren’t that great $8.50/hour to start – but, cripes, thousands of unemployed and you can’t find 50?

Poitras mentioned that HelpDeskNow stated they couldn’t find workers in his piece but….

Now, let me tell you my side of the thing. Earlier this year, I interviewed almost a dozen business people on western PEI and all of them said the biggest economic problem facing Western PEI was the ‘lack of labour’. It’s all around them, they said, but nobody wants to work. Further, they stated that if you are willing to pay under the table (then they keep their EI), they will work for you – at least temporarily.

Then there’s the famous ‘big stamp’ where employers and employees get together and work things out in such a way that a worker seems to be paid a high salary (in reality they just work more) so they can collect the maximum EI. It turns out that the maximum EI is much higher than the $8.50/hour offered by HelpDeskNow.

So, these business leaders told me that if you want to find workers, you will have to make it worth the person’s while to leave the big stamp for work. In other words, pay a major premium to get workers.

Welcome to rural Atlantic Canada.

To add fuel to the fire, I was told that people in western PEI would be made fun of for working in such an establishment as the HDN call centre. This seemed a little more bizarre but two people told me the same thing.

So, you tell me. Is the story a low end call centre ‘incentive shopping’ or is it that a government program that was meant to help people is now among the largest barriers to economic development? Is the story PEI’s (or NB’s) desperate attempt to find companies that will go into that environment or is it that occasionally a company might try and take advantage?

Here’s my Cliff Notes on this thing:
-Bravo to any government that is trying to find jobs for rural Atlantic Canada.
-A big fat thumbs down to both the Feds and the Provs for not trying to fix the EI problem.
-People who would rather live on pogey than work should ask their grandparents if they felt the same way.
-Journalists should find some way (and I realize this is almost impossible) to get the EI thing into the public space and it should be discussed in a neutral fashion. We shouldn’t hammer folks caught in the EI trap but we should find ways to get them out.

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