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Fine arts graduate Meghan Empey only recently secured a permanent position after holding 12 temporary jobs in the past few years. (Philip Cheung for The Globe and Mail)
Fine arts graduate Meghan Empey only recently secured a permanent position after holding 12 temporary jobs in the past few years. (Philip Cheung for The Globe and Mail)

THE AGENDA

Canada's shift to a nation of temporary workers Add to ...

It’s not just a perception: Temporary work really is growing at a faster pace than permanent positions.

The number of temporary workers in Canada hit a record two million last year, according to Statistics Canada. That amounts to 13.6 per cent of the work force compared with 11.3 per cent in 1997, when such record-keeping began.

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And since the recession, temporary work has grown at more than triple the pace than permanent employment – up 14.2 per cent for temp work between 2009 and 2012, versus 3.8 per cent for permanent workers.

A detailed breakdown shows most of the growth in temp work in the past decade and a half has been among young people. Temporary positions are most prevalent in education, culture and the accommodation and food services sector. By province, most of the growth in temp work has been in British Columbia and Ontario.

Contract work gives many employers a more flexible work force, leaving them more nimble in responding to the ebbs and flows of demand in a bumpy economy. And it may suit some highly skilled people who don’t want to be tied down to one employer.

But for many workers who’ve had to hop from one contract to another, like Meghan Empey, the uncertainty has spelled financial strain.

“I’ve been literally living paycheque to paycheque,” says Ms. Empey, 25, who has held 12 positions in recent years.

Uncertainty and underemployment have also led to personal strains – with many workers unable to plan or save for the future, or at times to make ends meet. “There is nothing more immediately stressful than not having money to put a roof over your head, put food in your fridge or have your phone so you can talk to employers,” says Ms. Empey, who lives in Toronto.

What many employers would call flexible work, others would call precarious. A joint study by McMaster University and the United Way in February found four in 10 people in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton region are in some degree of precarious work (defined as a state of employment that lacks security or benefits) – and that this type of employment has risen by nearly 50 per cent in the past two decades. It also found that people in insecure work tend to earn 46-per-cent less than those in secure positions, and rarely get benefits.

“You’re either a winner or loser in this labour market,” said Wayne Lewchuk, professor of labour studies at McMaster University in Hamilton. “The clear winners [are those] with great, stimulating, well-paid jobs. But a lot of others [exist] in a treadmill of insecurity, with little training and a limited career path,” which in turn makes it difficult to maintain relationships, buy houses, engage with the community or get established in life.

Jan Hein Bax, president of the staffing agency Randstad Canada, says temp work holds benefits for employers and employees. It lets both try each other out before committing to a permanent positions. It’s a good entry point into the labour market. And temping can frequently lead to an offer of permanent work.

Best practices show the move shouldn’t lead to a two-tiered work force, where contract workers are subject to worse health and safety conditions or benefits, he said.

In Abbotsford, B.C., Garrison Duke has noticed the rise of temp work, especially for young people. Constant job hopping, he says, means youth don’t get opportunities to build skills, find mentors or move up a career path – resulting in growing frustration, says Mr. Duke, who oversees the Abbotsford Works program.

In other parts of the country, changing job status reflects a shifting economy. In Niagara Falls, Ont., where the jobless rate is 9.2 per cent, work has shifted – dramatically – to seasonal positions rather than year-round ones as many industrial plants have shut down, leaving largely tourism positions on offer, says Ethel Churchill, executive director of the Niagara Employment Help Centre.

“Jobs here are very scarce over the winter,” she says. “There’s not a lot of permanency.”

Still, temp jobs can lead the way to better work. Ms. Empey’s story has a happier turn – the fine arts grad has recently found a permanent job in sales, with benefits. That certainty has allowed her to pay down debts, and start saving for retirement.

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