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Sleepwalking through your job? You're in good company

Canadians might love a lot of things – hockey, poutine, apologizing for no reason (sorry about that last one). But it appears "working" is not high on the list.

A new global survey on worker engagement, produced by the pollsters at Gallup and published on the Harvard Business Review's website, confirms it. As the cool interactive map on HBR's site shows, only 16 per cent of Canadians are engaged in their work, compared with 70 per cent who are not engaged and 14 per cent who are "actively disengaged."

(Gallup defines engaged workers as those who "work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company." On the other hand, actively disengaged employees are so unhappy at work that they "undermine what their engaged co-workers accomplish." The bulk of workers, the unengaged, are "sleepwalking through their workday, putting time – but not energy or passion – into their work," the report said.)

While that's pretty discouraging to Canadian employers and employees alike, it's actually better than the global average. Worldwide, Gallup found in the survey data collected in 2011 and 2012 that only 13 per cent of employees are engaged. What's worse, actively disengaged workers in the world outnumber their engaged colleagues by nearly two to one.

The leader in worker engagement among developed nations? The United States. Gallup found that 30 per cent of U.S. workers are engaged in their jobs, versus 52 per cent unengaged and 18 per cent actively disengaged. France, on the other hand, has low levels of engagement that rival emerging markets: 9 per cent engagement, 26 per cent active disengagement.

A key problem for engagement in the developed world, almost paradoxically, is the high level of education. Workers get stuck in jobs for which they are overeducated.

Quitters provide hint on stronger U.S. job market

How do we know that the U.S. labour market is improving? More people are quitting.

U.S. work force consultancy Challenger Gray and Christmas Inc. noted this week that while hiring in most parts of the country remains "subdued," the most recent U.S. government data show that more U.S. workers are "voluntarily leaving their employers." It said the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 2,364,000 Americans quit their jobs in August, up 11 per cent from a year earlier. It noted that the number of voluntary departures has risen steadily from its recession low of 1,601,000 in September, 2009. The average job-quitter level for the first eight months of 2013 was up 7 per cent from the end of 2012.

"While the government survey does not break out the reasons for these voluntary departures, the rising number of individuals willing to walk away from a job suggests that more are being lured away by other employers, or that they are confident enough in their job prospects that they can leave before securing a new position," John Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger Gray & Christmas, said in a news release.

Aging population poses literacy challenge

Two of the biggest questions surrounding Canada's ability to increase its productivity and compete globally are (1) education and skills training, and (2) the aging of the population. Research at the University of British Columbia suggests a key point where these two challenges intersect: Literacy.

Literacy, a critical skill often used as a proxy for the general level of education of a work force, has been linked to workers' flexibility to quickly and easily adapt to changes and new technologies. Canada boasts one of the highest literacy rates in the world, at 99 per cent.

But in terms of further raising the depth of our national literacy skills, Canada's aging population may pose a substantial roadblock. Research by UBC professors David Green and W. Craig Riddell has found that our literacy skills typically don't improve after our formal education ends – and they appear to decline as we get older.

A separate study by researchers at Human Resources and Skills Development Canada concluded that because the labour force is likely to shrink with the increasing proportion of retirement-age Canadians in the population, there will be a premium placed in the labour market on increased quality – better-trained and more productive workers. The implication is that we may need to extend education into later years, or return workers to the education system periodically, in order to maintain higher levels of literacy skills for longer.

The secret economics of hit-making: It's dumb luck

How does a song become a double-platinum hit, making millions for its artist and record label? You'd like to think through hard work, quality production, skilled songwriting and gifted musicianship. Or, at least, through the music industry's marketing machine. But it turns out it may just be random chance.

A study by Princeton sociology professor Matthew Salganik, which he discussed this week on the Harvard Business Review's blog, created eight website "rooms" to which participants were randomly assigned, and in which they could listen to and (if they liked) download a selection of songs. (Each room had exactly the same songs.) He found, not surprisingly, that popularity took on a snowballing effect – as a song got downloaded more times, other participants saw high number of downloads and were drawn to those songs. But the surprise was that each room had different "hits" from the other rooms – and songs that had big download numbers in some rooms were total flops in others.

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