Lenover’s Family Meat Market has been serving cuts of meat to Chatham residents since 1933, when the region was among one of the most prolific farming communities in North America.
Since then, the southern Ontario city has gone through waves of industrialization that saw dozens of manufacturing plants built alongside the region’s sprawling fields, as companies took advantage of the city’s close proximity to auto manufacturers in Windsor and Detroit and a wealth of highly trained trades workers. The Navistar plant that closed in August employed more than 2,000 at its peak only a decade ago, and the company's hulking buildings are a daily reminder of the city's changing fortune.
So it is that 78 years after Lenover’s opened it doors, the focus is back on farming. Only a handful of manufacturing companies made it through the recession, and those that are left are under constant threat by a high Canadian dollar and overseas competitors. The city of 40,000 faces a challenge common to other industrial towns – its skilled workers are losing their jobs. And when they do, they leave town. Often, for good.
“This place is turning into a retirement community,” said Mike Lenover, who took over the butcher shop from his father. “We just can’t keep our young people around, because there are no jobs. I have two daughters and they’re both in Toronto now. I don’t think they’ll be coming back to take over here, or to do anything else for that matter.”
The city’s unemployment rate is 8.7 per cent, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Peter Forth, owner of JVC Coatings, is one of the few manufacturers in town that has added staff in the past year. Finding labourers is easy, he said, but his search for electricians or metal workers frequently ends in frustration.
“I blame the parents,” said Mr. Forth, who employs 24 workers at his small company that specializes in melding metals together. “They all have university educations, and expect the same from their kids. But, I can’t get some of those people I need. That’s one of the biggest issues we face – getting kids interested.”
The province’s political parties are in a difficult position – they must convince Ontario voters they are able to create jobs. But many of the jobs that are gone – particularly those in the manufacturing industry – aren’t coming back. It’s left the leaders to campaign with promises of completely overhauling the province’s labour landscape.
Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty has been visiting clean-energy companies throughout the first week of the campaign, making six stops already.
“Here in Ontario, we’re on to something really good,” he said at the Eclipsall Energy Corp. plant in Scarborough. “We are not prisoners of our present. We are working hard to create a bright future.”
Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak is counting on a series of tax cuts to spark a flurry of spending from consumers, leading to more hiring in the private sector. He also plans to create 200,000 apprenticeship openings to help spur the development of more high-skilled trades workers.
Mr. Hudak has also spoken about jobs at most of his campaign stops, but he uses the issue to transition into his plan to reduce taxes for middle-class families. Speaking in London on Tuesday, he said the province can’t afford the type of jobs programs the Liberals have implemented, including a $7-billion green-energy pact signed with South Korean industrial giant Samsung Group that is promising to bring 200 new jobs to that city alone.
Mr. Hudak has vowed to kill the program in the past, but spoke more cautiously when asked if he would commit to ending the agreement.
“What I won’t do is sign these pie-in-the-sky contracts that are driving hydro rates through the roof,” he said.
The NDP’s plan involves providing tax credits for companies that hire full-time workers.
For Mr. Lenover, none of the plans are likely to work in time to lure his daughters back home. But he does see promise focusing on developing a highly skilled work force that can create new industries in the future.
“They’ll not come back to take over the shop,” he said. “But, they’ll have the skills to do whatever they want.”