The Exclusive Rhetoric of Talent Management

Recently I was at a Policy Forum hosted by Ontario’s Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development. Lots of topics were covered, but one thing I really noticed was two very contradictory perspectives on labour market participation.

Version One says that everyone should have the opportunity to be engaged in meaningful work and learning.[1]  It was the dominant tone of the policy event, expressed in the opening address of Conference Board of Canada Chief Economist Craig Alexander. If you read about labour and education at all, there was nothing too new in his presentation: Canada has an aging population. We need skilled workers and good jobs to collectively pay for all the shit we need. Like health care, and drugs and quality childcare, and good schools.

We also have a lot of people who are under-represented in the labour market, or whose skills are under-utilized. The “usual suspects” here, all discussed by Alexander, are Indigenous people, racialized visible minorities, skilled immigrants and people with disabilities. The logic is pretty clear. Get people learned up in the right fields — especially Indigenous people — and then get them hooked up to the jobs we need filled.

Of course, it’s not this simple, but I’m not out to argue with the basic logic of matching people to jobs here. What I would like to point out is that this particular vision of work is highly inclusive. It says that a diverse workforce is a strength. You can’t have people from different cultures working together or develop accommodations for people with disabilities unless you’ve got an underlying, genuine belief that the full array of peoples’ gifts, knowledge, perspectives and experiences are both socially and economically valuable.

So, I’m pretty down with all of this; it is the vision of work that I believe in. Which is why I just about lost it upon the later presentation of Version Two of labour force participation: “Talent Management.” The speaker, who clearly adored the concept, presented a survey of employer perspectives on the recruitment of post-secondary graduates that was littered with references to “thought leadership,” “talent pipelines” and sundry HR speak.

Mostly what made me crazy was the presenter’s enthusiasm for a rhetoric that is used to normalize and justify the high-stakes competition faced by new grads for a rapidly diminishing pool of secure career-entry level jobs. “Talent” in the contexts of “talent management” is the opposite of the kind of inclusive vision I discussed above. Instead, while professing to want generic attributes like a “willingness to learn” and “people skills”[2] — apparently four years of university is insufficient to acquire these traits? — actual job requirements can border on the absurd in the degree of specificity they require of candidates: “Sorry we only want to hire you if you at least three-and-a-half years of experience with Python and SQL while making pumpkin spice lattes and wearing a pirate patch over your left eye.”

Over and above the weird gap between the narrative around generic attributes and the specificity of actual job requirements, what’s really interesting is the big fat gap between policy goals for employability — which wax inclusiveness — and the logic of “talent management” which justifies and even celebrates exclusion.

The gap points to underlying, competing understandings of under-employment and unemployment. If the “talent managers” are right, there are simply too few of these elusively talented people to fill jobs. This is the “skills gap” model. If people like me who theorize a shortage of decent jobs as the cause of under/unemployment are correct, “talent management” is just a way of dressing up a labour market that favours employers because the supply of educated workers exceeds demand.[3]

So, job seekers either have to figure out what the hell “talent” is supposed to mean, or they are truly facing an employer’s job market. Neither of these conditions bodes well for skilled workers, let alone unskilled workers to be targetted with education and training. As ever, policy looks to the salvation in education in lieu of frank understandings of real labour market conditions.[4]


[1] See this report to Ontario’s premier in 2016, Building the Workforce of Tomorrow: A Shared Responsibility.

[2] Actual top two “talent challenges” reported by employers in this Waterloo study of employers’ perceptions of talent.

[3] See Uppal, S., & LaRochelle-Côté, S. (2014). Overqualification among recent university graduates in Canada. Ottawa; Boggs, J. (2017, Sept. 13). Is Canada’s skills shortage real or are businesses to blame? The Conversation.

[4] This current report from Chartered Professional Accountants Canada discusses the ways in which present data collected on the Canadian labour market fails to account for multiple forms of labour market precarity: Fong, F. (2018). Navigating precarious employment in Canada: Who is really at risk?  Also see Weil’s (2014) The Fissured Workplace for a detailed account of structural changes in the organization of work.

Do The Salariat Experience Survivor Guilt?

Most people have not heard the word “salariat.” From my (very cursory) research, it appears to be French in origin, used to describe the professional/managerial classes who work for a salary rather than a wage. I first encountered word in Will Hutton’s The State We’re In. The author described a “30-30-40” society in which only 40% of workers fell in to the category of securely employed and earning well enough to maintain a middle-class lifestyle. More recently, labour economist Guy Standing has described this fortunate forty per cent as the “salariat.” I use the term, as Standing does, to describe the class of workers who are securely employed, salaried, and have pensions and benefits as part of their employment package.[1]

Because I am well-educated and tend to travel among the same, many of the people I know occupy or are retired from secure, well-paying full-time positions like those just described. As someone who theoretically “did all the right things” in terms of education, but remains insecurely employed, I sometimes find myself among my “salariat” colleagues and friends wrestling to keep my regard for them as decent people separate from my feelings of hostility about our different positions in the labour market. I try to remember that this fortunes-in-life thing cuts both ways. There are others out there who have it a whole lot worse than I do. And, I try to forgive myself for these occasional bouts of social comparison, which are unfortunate by-products of being human.[2]

Recently I was talking about the challenges of the labour market with a retired friend, and expressed some frustration about being unable to find permanent work. My usual coping mechanism for unpleasant feelings is analysis. (This is how you self-soothe once you’ve been in grad school for too long.) So, I whipped out my statistics and readings about precarious labour, in full on researcher mode. That is, until I realized my friend was feeling uncomfortable. Perhaps even a little bit guilty. She looked down as she essentially apologized for having a pension, and enough of a family inheritance to be able to buy herself and her partner a nice condo in the pricey Toronto GTA. I felt bad for my moment of lamenting my work situation, and hastened to ask her not to apologize for having a decent life. “This,” I thought, “is why my WASP-y, well-mannered partner advises against talking religion, politics, and money.”

The conversation also got me wondering, however, whether some members of the “salariat” experience survivor guilt. The concept of work-related “survivor guilt” cropped up in the 1980s when layoffs began to be used in earnest to manage corporate bottom-lines.[3] Prior to this, it was used primarily to account for war-related trauma: surviving concentration camps in the WW2 Holocaust being the exemplary case. The crux of it is that one feels guilty relative to the fate of others when he or she, literally or metaphorically “survives.”[4] The negative psychological consequences of survivor guilt include stress and depression. Basically, it’s hard to be happy if you’re carrying around the feeling that you are “experiencing good things at the expense of others, and that [your] success will make others feel bad by comparison.”[5]

Survivor guilt is closely related to our sense of what is fair, and this in turn is related to whether people (I’m being a bit reductive here) are driven by a sense of competition, or altruism. If you hold more of a “dog-eat-dog” worldview, you probably don’t dwell a lot on how other folks are getting on, and make no apologies for what you have.

On the other hand, if you’re not convinced that “the way it is” in the world of work is the way it ought to be, you may feel a bit uneasy. I hear traces of survivor guilt, like that expressed by my friend, above, in other colleagues and friends who know they are damn lucky to have their jobs. They express a sense of helplessness: Sure it’s a social problem that there aren’t enough good jobs to go around, but what can any of us do but try to get one anyway, and feel grateful to succeed? Some of us vote for political parties with stronger sympathies for the working poor, but still lack the conviction that this is a route to any meaningful change.

So that helplessness I feel sometimes doesn’t affect only me. I’d still rather have the problems of the “salariat” over my own precarity any day of the week, but it’s important to recognize that the “survivor guilt” experienced by labour market “haves” can generate its own kind of suffering. If the precariat feel ripped off, and the salariat feel guilty, its hard to talk past these difficult feelings and come together to seek solutions. In other words, the social awkwardness of conversations in which we directly confront our unequal positions in the labour market holds us back from talking about how the shrinking pool of secure, well-paying jobs hurts us all.


[1] It’s important to clarify that this figure lowballs those who are employed full time and reasonably securely, as I’ve included pensions and benefits in my definition of the “salariat.” Vosko (2006) pegged full time employment permanent employment in Canada at 63% of the workforce.

[2] cf. Sayer, A. (2005). Class, moral worth and recognition. Sociology, 39(5), 947–963. de Botton, A. (2005). Status Anxiety. London: Penguin Books.

[3] Aaaand this of course created an awesome new market for consultants to sell workshops and books to help managers fix “survivors” so all can get over their pesky humanity and get back to being “productive.”

[4] Connor, L., Weiss, J., Bush, M. & Sampson, H. (1997). Interpersonal guilt: The development of a new measure. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 53(1), 73-89.

[5] Connor et al. (1997) again, p. 76.


Who is Responsible for “Training” Today’s Workers?

employedinfieldI read this recent report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario with quickly mounting frustration. It’s premised on a key but unstated assumption that’s been driving me buggy for as long as I’ve been studying higher education and education-to-work transitions: The assumption is that Canada’s employers have no role to play in getting new grads to work.

Read moreWho is Responsible for “Training” Today’s Workers?