The mood of a nation: Kitchener, Ont.

Dave Arjune actually chuckled when recounting how his company, Arjune Engineering & Manufacturing Inc., had been hit by the rapidly appreciating Canadian dollar. Arjune had accumulated $1 million in a U.S. bank account and used the money last year to purchase a 300-acre patch of land. But he bought the land when the dollar was close to par, and lost around $300,000 in the conversion process. The Guyana-born Arjune didn’t seem to be the least bit annoyed in retelling the story, and he plans to use the land to grow food for his 15 employees and their families.

It was strange to find that kind of nonchalant attitude in Kitchener, which has experienced the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs over the past few years. So what gives?

Arjune has a few advantages, as he sees it. His company is a specialty manufacturer for the automotive, aerospace and defense industries, so it competes on quality, not sheer production output. Operating as a small company also allows Arjune to develop solid relationships with his customers. He’s heavily involved with the community (he sits on the Chamber of Commerce, for one) and participates in high school co-op programs to find and train future employees. “We train employees ourselves. We gave up on the idea of finding the skill we need because it’s not there,” he said. “When I came here in 1981, we needed machinists. And now 26 years later, we still haven’t solved that problem.”

He’s also not saddled with union costs. “I’m going to be hated for saying this, but the unions have outlived their usefulness in the Western world,” he said. “Unions kill a company because they always want more than the company can afford to pay.”

There are obviously many who would disagree, and Karen Quantz, who works as a coordinator at a job search centre, extolled the benefits of belonging to a union. “Excellent pensions. Benefits. 100 % coverage. We were incredibly lucky to have jobs like that,” she said. Quantz worked at auto-parts manufacturer Lear Kitchener until she was laid off last year, and now earns the equivalent of half her old salary.

She was concerned about the impact of job losses on the local economy, as well as the great number of people who have been laid off but don’t have the credentials to find similarly paying work. “Some of us came right from high school. We didn’t walk in with degrees,” she said. Quantz expects to see competition even for low-paying jobs, and said the worst is yet to come. Many of those laid off have yet to start looking for new jobs, believing they’ll eventually be called back to work. “There’s going to be a realization within the next two months or so,” she said. “If you’re looking for a job, you can find it anywhere but Kitchener.” She then corrected herself. “Well, maybe at Tim Hortons. But how much do they pay?”