- Canada’s labour market data has been centred in qualifications, educational background and credentials, but must now shift to the skills that are needed for specific jobs within the workforce.
- Educational institutions must focus on skills development and acquisition as opposed to “on paper” qualifications to best support students and future employees.
- The pandemic has impacted certain sectors of society far worse than others, and as such policies for recovery will need to address that inequality.
It will be difficult for Canada to make a successful transition to the future of work if our workers, academic institutions, employers, and governments do not have solid data on the kinds of skills needed for this future. In order to design an effective sustainable recovery program, better data is needed to guide the hand of not only our policymakers, but also our educational institutions so that they can tailor their programs for skills development.
What has been the impact of COVID-19 on the Canadian labour market and what does this mean for the future of work?
I am not one for hyperboles but it is easy to say that what we have seen is unprecedented, at least since we have been tracking these numbers. If I put my lens on March and April, the Canadian economy lost 3 million jobs, which is really nothing like we have seen before, and we lost those jobs in two months. Now, to put that in context—what it means to lose 3 million jobs in two months—if we look back to the global financial crises of 2008 and 2009, the Canadian job market shaved half a million jobs over about an eight-month period. So this is really nothing like we have seen before. The job losses in March and April of 2020 are more than the job losses of the past three recessions combined. It is really nothing like we have seen before. Since summer, we have recouped some of those jobs but there have been some considerable distributional impacts on who has been hurt the most.
“The job losses in March and April of 2020 are more than the job losses of the past three recessions combined.”
What does that mean for the future of work? A couple of things come obviously to mind. The first is an analogy of when you look in the side mirror where it says, “Objects are closer than they appear.” The future of work is much closer to the present than we would have anticipated. It goes without saying that technology has fundamentally reshaped how we work and how we learn, and so that concern around the future of work is much more present than we thought.
“The future of work is much closer to the present than we would have anticipated.”
What it also tells me, at least in terms of how some of the impacts have unfolded, is that we are more or less very unprepared for rapid transformations and we know that this is not going to be the last crisis that the world of work sees. As we think about preparing for the future of work, we need to recognize that there has been some uncovering of our lack of preparedness for what is to come in terms of the changes.
How would you assess the current federal policies for skills development and what could Canada do differently to prepare our workforce?
As we think about building that new infrastructure, there are a few key things in mind that we need to be doing. The first one is understanding what the skill requirements are of jobs, which we do not know. Our entire way of thinking and collecting data is centred around what type of education, credential, or qualification is required for a job. That is how we collect information, which we have been doing for decades, but now what matters are the skills needed for jobs and how those skills are changing in the current context. As we move forward in thinking about the future of work, that is the first piece that we need to be working on.
The second piece is that information is only good if you are actually able to use it. If I know what the skills are of a certain job that I am interested in undertaking and I know that there is some good opportunity out there for me to acquire those skills and get a job, then where do I get the training and the education required to acquire those skills? That is the next big missing piece from a data infrastructure perspective.
“Educational institutions need to be more careful about how programs lead not only to credentials and pieces of paper but to skills development and acquisition.”
Employers need to do a better job of articulating the needs of jobs, while educational institutions need to be more careful about how programs lead not only to credentials and pieces of paper but to skills development and acquisition. There are lots of things that need to happen around those two main things but if we can get a better handle on what the skill requirements are for jobs, how they are changing, and where and how individuals, training institutions, and employers can support individuals in acquiring those skills to get a new or better job, then we will have done a tremendous service to the skills development space in the current context.
What should we be doing now to help Canadian workers recover from this crisis stronger and well-equipped to thrive in the future economy?
The two things I would say in terms of the skills development space is, first and foremost, Canada needs to set our sights on policies and programs to help those that have been most impacted. The warning I would give to policymakers would be that the same toolkit from previous crises does not necessarily hold. When I think about the global financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, there was infrastructure and shovel-ready projects very much à la mode in terms of how we stimulated economic activity. Those are still good things to think about but are those the right policies and programs that would help some of the people that have been most impacted, such as those who are low-educated, women, youth, and recent immigrants? Are we using the right toolkit to address those that have been most impacted? Here, we need to think a little bit outside the crisis thinking box, if you will.
“The impacts of the pandemic have revealed vulnerabilities that are structural issues we need to address.”
The other thing I would say is that the impacts of the pandemic have revealed vulnerabilities that are structural issues we need to address, either in terms of the remuneration of people in some of these service-oriented jobs and their access to benefits such as sick leave. If we are going to address the long-standing issues of inequality, we need to be thinking about those.
“Even within Canada, the borders have opened up in terms of how you think about recruiting.”
I do, however, want to emphasize that there is another element to this. Talent is now, if it was not already, definitely global in nature in terms of how we think about acquiring it. Even within Canada, the borders have opened up in terms of how you think about recruiting. I no longer think about recruiting people in Ottawa but recruiting basically across the country. When we think about addressing structural issues in terms of competition and ensuring that Canada is the leader in global talent development, we must not lose sight that there is also a higher tier of skills development with technologies and artificial intelligence that we need to bear in mind. Yes, we need to make sure that policies and programs address first and foremost those vulnerabilities, but at the same time, there is a bigger revolution in terms of technology and the interactions of those other drivers we talked about earlier that necessitates a slightly different strategy if Canada wants to become a leader in global talent development. Both those strategies are needed.
If you had to pitch someone in a position of power to improve skills development for the recovery, what would you say?
If I had a choice as to who I would pick obviously I would make a pitch to the Prime Minister and all provincial and territorial leaders. The pitch would go as follows: the nature of this health pandemic has illustrated to us that behind good policy and program decisions is good data, and as we design a sustainable recovery from a workforce and skills development perspective, we need better data on skills. It is one piece of the puzzle but it is an essential one. Right now, while it is starting to bubble up and we are thinking about turning ideas into action, there is still a gap in how we think about skills and skills data. The LMIC stands ready to work with all of its partners and collaborators to close that gap so we can develop a skills development strategy for Canada that is based on good, solid data and information.