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Mobilizing Higher Education and Workforce Development for the Rapid Re-Employment of Canadians

A paper produced by the Public Policy Form tackles the COVID-19 crisis that has derailed the careers of millions of Canadians. To support them, workforce leaders, and policy and decision makers need to mobilize education and training systems in some key ways – starting with robust labour market information and laying the foundation for a national system of lifelong learning.

Three months into the COVID-19 crisis, it was clear the restaurant you worked at was not reopening. You were unemployed, a job seeker alongside tens of thousands of other servers. Anxious and worried about paying your rent, you were also excited to find your next career. You reached out to a local employment service organization, but its online services were poor, and you didn’t have the skills or experience to apply for the jobs they referred you to. When you were eventually referred to a career developer, that service relied on pre-pandemic job market information. You were frustrated, but nevertheless followed their advice and spoke to admissions at a nearby university. They recommended a four-year degree program, but it wasn’t clear what job would exist in your local economy once you graduated. And how were you supposed to pay tuition and living costs?

The scale of pandemic-induced disruption to Canada’s economy and labour market is unprecedented. At peak economic shutdown in April 2020, 5.5 million Canadian workers had lost their jobs or were working fewer than half their usual hours. Many more people experienced full or substantial income loss, reflected in the stunning 8.4 million applications for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). Analysts predict a second wave of layoffs as businesses adjust to a prolonged economic contraction.

Fewer than half the jobs lost in the early phase of this crisis will be restored within the first year, according to Jim Stanford, in his Public Policy Forum (PPF) paper on work after COVID-19. He expects elevated unemployment for years to come. The employment losses and hardship have been heavily concentrated among low-wage, part-time and precarious workers, women, youth and younger workers, immigrants, and hard-hit sectors like retail, hospitality and tourism. Many of these jobs will never come back. Many others will be profoundly changed.

Stanford puts it starkly: “Handled badly, this could easily turn into a decade-long depression.”

With most of the country reopened in August 2020, 1.1 million fewer workers were employed than before the pandemic hit, with a further 700,000 workers still experiencing substantial loss in hours. The increase in numbers of job searchers is almost twice what it was during the 2008–2009 recession. These workers will continue to require urgent and large-scale assistance, including employment insurance (EI) and the newly announced EI temporary benefit programs, social supports from mental health to housing assistance, and back-to-work schemes like the emergency wage subsidy (also explored in the Rebuild Canada series).

Beyond unemployment and safety net assistance, these workers require an unprecedented mobilization of education and training to prepare them for rapid re-employment. This is an historic level of demand, which our higher education and workforce-development systems are not currently equipped to meet. It also adds to and accelerates a pre-COVID trend: increasing calls for lifelong learning as a way for workers and employers to adapt to rapidly shifting labour markets. For working-age Canadians, ongoing education, retraining and capacity building is becoming a necessity to stay relevant and succeed in the job market through their careers. For the country, a pivot to models of lifelong learning for all Canadians is an opportunity to transform the workforce quickly and boost competitiveness.

Meeting these twin challenges of rapid re-employment and lifelong learning will be an enormous test for policy-makers, and for Canada’s systems of higher education and workforce development. This paper, building on a previous article for PPF and First Policy Response (a project of the Ryerson Leadership Lab), presents a set of prescriptions to federal and provincial/territorial governments, and the leaders of Canada’s post-secondary and employment systems. It echoes that initial paper’s premise that we have a window during which we can help those forced out of their jobs, and also right longstanding structural inequalities by building a lifelong-learning system that knits together our higher education and workforce-development systems.

Access the full report here.

by Jake Hirsch-Allen, Gladys Okine-Ahovi and André Côté

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