“Fit” is the New Ability:  And Other Labour Market Pangs

By Arundati Dandapani

I am only over a decade older than Google, blessed with fine education, experience, skills, upbringing, intellect and humble qualities. Every passing year of wealth not gained competes disproportionately with gains in “inner wealth” alone—this does not pay the bills. Falling into “free market volunteerism”—an arguably Canadian rite of career passage—enabled me to devote time, skills, and horsepower to my profession’s industry association in volunteer leadership activities, growing my reach and also responsibilities, ever so enthusiastically.

Why work for free, when you are not even helping the homeless or ending cancer and poverty, challenged my peers! Well, I would reply, why is it so hard for well-educated internationally trained, creative, intelligent hard-workers to obtain even gainful formal employment in line with their skillsets? Navigating the changing Canadian workplace showed me a few more things.

Whether you’re being recruited to a volunteer committee or a company, there is an invisible checklist of “other requirements” that makes individuals or companies screen you out. Do you speak a certain word length (“less” is “more”), are you an extrovert or a bully, boy or a girl, from here or elsewhere, with us or without us, easygoing as cake or tough as a turtle, System 1 or System 2? Able to read the room or on the hyperactive-autistic side of the spectrum? What about threshold for group-chat and colleague-to-colleague cruelty? “Fit” is the new ability. Fitting people in hidden boxes might look shiny on your bottomlines, but a truer understanding of employee skillsets and value-proposition demands braver leadership.

Honest ongoing communications are basic for facilitating the optimal and ethical exchange of goods, ideas and services. If you have hired an employee after 4-8 rounds of interviews, once the offer is made and a given person inducted, the onus is on employers (as much as employees) to ensure a seamless integration in the workplace—else you are being reckless and certainly not a fair employer/company.

I once spoke on my college’s alumni panel about the plethora of “bad jobs” and precarious work: “We will pay you in bitcoin, and transfer operational funds into your bank accounts in advance,” being just the tip of this titanic. Mix un(der)employment with free market volunteerism, and you hit a new kind of race to the bottom. Vulnerability at the bottom of the pyramid is not a new concept, and immigrant female volunteers of colour are easy to rely on for free labour, without even the faint promise of fulfilling their most basic wish (right) of gainful employment.

Population growth with immigration abets unemployment. While Canada’s overall unemployment has dropped to a snug 6.5%, the lowest since 2008 with less people looking for work now, the labour market gap between immigrants and the Canadian-born persists; this gap narrows based on immigrants’ time since landing, and will not disappear anytime soon. Educated caregivers from the Philippines are the only exception, enjoying even higher rates of employment than native born Canadians and any other nation’s immigrant workforce together.

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Is “fit” merely a matter of immigrants not being integrated and exposed enough? What about all those government-funded and private employment agencies, bridging programs, volunteerism opportunities, disruptive networking and social knowledge events and apps? They exist and offer much value to their critical masses but are also keeping up with changing technologies and demographics. And while free market volunteerism can provide an illusion of corporate belonging, it offers few of the same benefits.

As a new entrant to an industry and country, I was always very proud of and grateful for all I had achieved through volunteering in numerous leadership roles, working on platforms and channels including content and events I helped put together, hosted, led and engaged with. When MRIA folded, I was not alone in feeling as though all my work in the last four years had been blown away. It is tempting to even “begrudge” a handful of elites for selling volunteerism without any promise of structured employment or gratuity—but then, our corporate ecosystem offered no better support-system! For the brief stint I was hired at a market research company (after an over 9-month job-search), my role wound up almost as instantly as it was offered, stripping me of every shred of two-month income and security, pushing me back to the lowest of the margins.

There’s a fine line between favour and abuse, service and disservice, culturalism and racism, and often we aren’t pushing ourselves to demand deeper conversations for fear of “upsetting the order” in a bullshit-filled marketplace with cookie-cutter expectations. If corporate Canada is so unimaginative and has to rely on some hidden nexus of hierarchies that profit from the free and underpaid labour of its lowest rung of society—how different are we from anyone else? How is this the mark of strong or unwavering leadership or even corporate professionalism? CSR is just fancy-image porn, where employers are only concerned with their public face and clients than their employees. Senior leadership is accountable to their volunteer and employee experience and annual surveys are not real time enough. Work in progress is not a crime so much as work stalled or forgotten.

Engaging free or underpaid labour with no gratuity nor recognition is unethical when you seek ongoing value and services. When we perpetuate inequity by extracting the sweat, blood and tears of those at the basement of Maslow’s pyramid and routinely ignore our colleagues who slog so hard to entertain, engage, educate and yes, elevate our profession, at every possible opportunity, in hopes of joining a league so far out of reach—formal employment, sold to luckier college co-op students (not even aging alumni) or those born into networks—we are doing a great disservice to the labour market and this nation. With skyrocketing investor-greed and the death of empathy in a not-so-conscientious climate, how do you expect us to survive the onslaught of even the dumbest of AI in a “post-jobs” world?