How can we transform Canada’s skills policy landscape to address new trends in how we live, work, learn and socialize in the post-pandemic world? This scoping report takes stock and identifies 8 areas for further research.
Pre-COVID-19 trends and pandemic revelations
The world of work exists largely as a function of the skills, education and training people have received and continue to pursue throughout their lives. In some ways, Canada’s skills and training ecosystem functions well. But in others, we lag behind our peers and let many workers and students fall through the cracks.
Even before the pandemic, global megatrends like technological advances, evolving work relationships (including a shift toward the gig economy), and demographic changes were putting pressure on our already imperfect training ecosystem. Partly because of these shifts, Canada has for some time faced a skills and employment landscape characterized by risk, uncertainty and inequality. For example, the people who most need skills development opportunities—racialized communities, women, Indigenous people and persons with disabilities—have been least likely to receive them.
COVID-19 and the resulting economic crisis have exacerbated these challenges. The pandemic has also revealed much about technological and economic change in Canada, and the structural inequities and discrimination endemic to our society and economy. The crisis has highlighted how important it is for workers to possess basic digital skills so they can successfully work remotely where possible, and has shed light on the relative merits of automation, reshoring (to protect supply chains) and precarious work in a time characterized by uncertainty.
Regarding structural inequalities, the pandemic has exacerbated racial and gender inequities as well as those for Indigenous communities. And it has had a disproportionately negative effect on persons with disabilities. As one example, Black Canadians are more likely to die from COVID-19 than other groups because of their over-representation in front-line jobs and because of the intersection of race, poverty and poor health. As another, only 44 percent of Indigenous people significantly affected by COVID-19 applied for federal income support, compared to 50 percent of non-Indigenous people.
COVID-19 has led to new work arrangements, with some estimates claiming that 40 percent of jobs can be done remotely. But this is mostly true for higher-income workers. People in manufacturing, construction and care jobs cannot work remotely.
The magnitude of the pandemic and economic crisis, and the many second-order trends associated with it, raise new implications for how we think about education, the workplace and skills training.
Themes for further research
While we know that the trends associated with the COVID-19 pandemic are changing the ways in which we live and work, the precise implications for skills development are not clear. To fully understand, additional research is needed across the following eight themes:
1. The current and future capacity of education and skills systems – Before COVID-19, Canada’s education and skills systems faced declining capacity and funding, and disparities were rife among demographic groups. The pandemic has exacerbated these challenges, mainly due to economic hardship resulting from declining university enrollment, government debt and business failures. We need to consider what expectations our education and skills systems must meet post-pandemic, and how new policies, technology, approaches and alternative funding arrangements can help meet rising demand for skills development and improved outcomes.
2. Rethinking essential skills development infrastructure – When it comes to work opportunities, the playing field is far from level and individuals’ prospects vary dramatically according to their skill levels, assets and access to infrastructure. Low-income and rural students face disproportionately greater barriers to education, while women are disproportionately restricted in their access to work and education because childcare and homeschooling so often fall to them. Meanwhile, we have a limited grasp of what motivates individuals to pursue training. To better understand the factors at play, we need to examine questions related to structural barriers (broadband, childcare, income) and what goes into individuals’ nuanced decision processes as they consider developing their skills.
3. Skills for more inclusive workplaces – Good public intentions to reduce racial and other inequities do not necessarily lead to change. The pandemic has illuminated long-standing inequities experienced by women, Indigenous and racialized people, newcomers and persons with disabilities. While there is some impetus to “build back better” post-COVID-19, employers have few practical toolkits to work with. And evidence tells us that equity training programs work only if undertaken in a context that embraces structural change. We need to better understand how COVID-19 has affected marginalized populations and their access to skills development. And we need to examine the levers that encourage employers to advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace and the tools needed to assist them in doing so.
4. Skills for new work arrangements – Because of COVID-19, many people are working remotely, and some families have been challenged as they try to keep up. Likewise, workplaces have been challenged to collaborate and think creatively online. Immigrants and new grads—and the people hiring them—have had to find one another and reach work agreements remotely, and then try to develop meaningful connections. We need more research on the nature of remote work and its implications for skills development. Who gets to work from home, and what types of skills do they need? What skills do people need to find jobs and learn well remotely, and how can employers best support their employees? And what are the potential implications of these shifts for skills in a post- pandemic world?
5. Immigration policies and practices – Before COVID-19, it was believed that immigrants, especially highly skilled ones, would continue to fill our expanding labour market. While Canadians generally support immigration, the pandemic has caused friction and encouraged more of a “take care of our own” mentality. More research is needed to explore the implications of COVID-19 for Canada’s immigrant and refugee policies. We need to examine disaggregated data on the impacts of COVID- 19 on immigrants, how attitudes toward them have shifted, and whether Canada needs to adjust its immigration and resettlement policies to fill labour and skills gaps.
6. Innovative and emergent models – While COVID-19 has been devastating to most Canadians, it has also fuelled innovation and accelerated the adoption of new technologies, processes and policies. Some organizations have learned to reach broader audiences. We need more research on the new skills and training policies, services and practices, the emergence of which COVID-19 has accelerated, as well as on how insights and lessons generated by their emergence can be shared and scaled.
7. Developing and supporting entrepreneurship – While many discussions of skills and employment are dominated by large employers, evidence shows that small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and micro-enterprises have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Meanwhile, businesses owned by marginalized populations are most likely to be under-financed and operating in sectors at risk. Research is needed on the most pressing skills issues most facing small businesses and underrepresented groups. How has COVID-19 affected these businesses, and what skills and talent do they need to survive? And how can educational institutions adapt to respond to these challenges?
8. Understanding jobs polarization and the levers needed to address it post-pandemic – We face enduring challenges in our quest to develop shared frameworks that can define, assess, develop and use workers’ skills. Overall, we lack a shared understanding of the challenge – or even a shared language—about skills, their assessment, development and use. We need to focus on practical ways to bridge skills and inclusivity gaps, and move to action—especially in ways that address the growing polarization of jobs that has been so starkly highlighted during the pandemic. How can we develop more useful shared frameworks for defining, assessing, developing and using skills, and encourage employers to adopt them? What policy, tax and procurement levers will promote collaboration for a more coherent employment ecosystem capable of better addressing growing concerns around income inequality?
The pandemic and economic crisis have generated new challenges and opportunities in Canada’s skills ecosystem, and accelerated existing ones. How can we transform our skills agenda to address new trends in how we live, work, learn and socialize? We believe a research agenda focused on the themes we outline in this paper will help Canada develop a new skills strategy for a more resilient, inclusive and innovative post- pandemic future. This scoping paper outlines the key issues at play, the questions they raise, and sets us up for the more detailed research provided by the eight thematic papers that make up the next phase of the project.
Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story @ Skills for the Post-Pandemic World – Public Policy Forum