As published in the Toronto Star

The current employment picture across Canada is a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. While the overall pace of job creation is picking up, the pandemic continues to hammer service-oriented sectors such as retail, travel and hospitality.

Worse still, the ranks of Canada’s long-term unemployed — those who have been out of work for six months or more — are swelling. According to CIBC, almost one in three jobless Canadians now falls into that category, double the rate before the crisis and higher even than at the peak of the 2008-09 recession.

The longer those people are out of work, the more difficult it will be for them to get back into the labour force. In many cases, the jobs they lost are likely gone forever. Younger people and displaced low-wage workers in particular may need retraining to qualify for employment in industries where opportunities are more plentiful.

Clearly, much more needs to be done if the federal government is to reach its goal of creating one million jobs and restoring employment to pre-pandemic levels.

Fortunately, the tools to respond to a rapidly evolving labour market are in our hands. Across the country, employers and post-secondary institutions have been making strides in what is known as re-skilling and upskilling — the process of upgrading workers’ skills so they can take advantage of new and better career opportunities.

Re-skilling and upskilling initiatives can help soften the blow of an economic downturn by equipping displaced workers for jobs in new or expanding industries. They can also help employers develop more agile, flexible workforces, ensuring faster adoption of productivity-enhancing technologies and the latest business practices.

When the COVID-19 emergency struck, companies and workers in a wide range of fields were forced to respond overnight to changing needs. Whether it was a sales representative who had to learn to close deals remotely or workers in an auto parts plant who were suddenly called upon to make ventilators, success depended on versatility and adaptability.

As the pandemic eases, a similar mindset can help to reduce unemployment and build resilience in Canada’s labour market. The key is to develop the right systems and programs to help workers keep up with ongoing workplace changes, transition to new jobs, and adapt to evolving business needs.

Consider these examples:

  • Palette Skills is a non-profit organization that helps mid-career workers from disrupted industries develop the digital literacy they need to move into high-demand jobs in the innovation economy. Participants receive training that is intense, rapid and targeted, in an environment in which employers play an active role.
  • Saskatoon-headquartered Nutrien, one of the world’s top fertilizer companies, has transformed its retail operations to become a leading agricultural technology business. Nutrien’s 3,500-plus agronomists needed to learn new ways of doing their jobs, using digital tools and data to help customers make better and more timely decisions.
  • EllisDon, an employee-owned construction services company, is anticipating a surge in demand for its services in coming years and taking steps now to be prepared. The company launched webinars to upgrade the technical skills of newer or less-experienced workers. It’s also instituting leadership development programs to ensure that the current workforce can bring on board and manage the next generation of employees who will join the company as it expands.

What all these programs have in common is that they are driven by real-world business needs. But to overcome Canada’s current unemployment challenges and build the workforce of the future, we can’t just rely on a relatively small number of targeted re-skilling programs and in-house training initiatives. Employers, governments and educators must join forces to develop large-scale training programs that help workers transition into new jobs or successfully take on new tasks.

Support from the public sector will be especially critical for small- and mid-sized companies that lack the resources to launch their own internal re-skilling programs. For some, training initiatives aimed at helping companies and workers in a single industry will make most sense. For others, a cross-sectoral approach may be more appropriate, with a focus on skills that are in short supply in many industries. Either way, employers must play an active role in designing the programs and must have skin in the game to ensure their success.

The OECD estimates that 1.1 billion jobs worldwide — representing almost a third of all global employment — liable to be radically altered by technology over the next decade. Our country will not be spared from this transformation. We need to start now to ensure that Canadians are prepared for the changing nature of work and the workplace.