It's encouraging when you see politicians identify a problem and make immediate moves to solve it, as council's economic development and parks committee did this week. Item one on the committee's agenda is a report from Joe Halstead, the commissioner of economic development, culture and tourism, entitled Toronto Labour Force Readiness Plan.
According to the nine-page document, the city faces a serious shortage of workers by the end of this decade that will severely constrain its economic growth unless something is done before the crunch comes.
"Toronto will begin losing a major share of its workforce after 2008 as members of the baby boomers retire," the report warns. And the resulting labour shortages will hit "across all occupations and skill groups."
"Toronto has a bright future as a global centre of the knowledge-based economy, but only if all levels of government, educational and training institutions, business and labour work more closely to improve the labour-force-development system," says councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, the economic development and parks committee chair.
But before you know it, Minnan-Wong and his colleagues have moved on to another item on their hefty agenda: the adopt-a-park program that will enlist community volunteers to clean up the recreation areas in their neighbourhoods. The conscripts will also be responsible for planting trees and flower beds and conducting school tours of the verdant results so the municipal employees who do the work now can be freed up to do other things. Like get ready for the impending labour shortage that's just around the corner.
Of course, the union locals representing civic workers aren't about to buy into this little plan right away. And why should they?
To them the adopt-a-park proposal has the look of a scheme to cut city costs by eliminating some union jobs so taxpayers can do the work for nothing.
"We wonder about the service to city residents who should be receiving services for the taxes they pay," says Bill Guthrie, vice-president of CUPE Local 416, which represents the city's outside workers. "The parks department has instituted user fees for virtually every activity in its purview. Now it proposes to also have residents do for free the physical work involved in park maintenance."
Where does it all stop?
First it's adopt-a-park. Then homeowners will be asked to adopt the street in front of their residences. Who better than they to shovel the roads so traffic can get through their neighbourhoods? Finally, the public sidewalk-clearing program will truly be city-wide.
Spurred on by such stellar successes, City Hall will soon be admonishing citizens to adopt a bus shelter (Windex and trash bags supplied). And if that program goes well, why not move on to adopt a bus, so neighbours can pick up neighbours and transport them to their desired destinations? TTC drivers will then be available to fill the worker void in other sectors of the local economy. Preferably private ones.
But let's stick with the park plan for now.
"If there is in fact a need for this work to be done," says Ann Dembinski, CUPE Local 79 (inside workers) president, "the city should be hiring more staff or increasing the hours of part-time workers rather than relying on volunteers."
And how are those volunteers going to react to being stuck with the work their taxes were supposed to pay for?
Well, Minnan-Wong figures they'll be all for it. Citizens want to be more involved, he says. They want to make their parks look better. They know the city doesn't have the money to do it any more.
Unfortunately, the councillor is only guessing on this. Nobody has actually gone out and asked the populace if they want to cut grass, plant flowers, pull weeds and teach kids the difference between a maple and an oak.
In spite of Minnan-Wong's earlier admonition that everybody should "work more closely" to meet the challenge of a looming labour shortage, nobody involved in the creation of the park adoption scheme bothered to consult the unions either. The workers only found out about the proposal last month.
Local 416's Guthrie has urged the committee to send Halstead's report back "and to direct the department to hold full consultations with us before proceeding."
No chance of that.
However, committee members do agree not to start handing the parks over to the plebs until next summer, when our anticipated labour crisis is one year closer.
Hopefully, all the bugs will be worked out by then. Or maybe they'll find a volunteer to get rid of them.