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Rising Stronger: Preparing Canada’s Post-Pandemic Workforce

Rising Stronger: Preparing Canada’s Post-Pandemic Workforce

Last week, Canada’s workforce development community came together for an unprecedented forum to address the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on labour markets, the future of work, and what is needed to move beyond the current crisis. 

Convened by Workforce Central Canada, the online event drew more than 500 registrants from coast to coast to coast and featured a panel of thought leaders and experts sharing their perspectives and insights.

MDB Insight is one of the founding partners behind Workforce Central Canada (together with HIEC and the National Association of Workforce Boards) and our Executive Vice-President, Trudy Parsons, has been a passionate advocate for this level of national coordination in the workforce development space. Following the creation of Workforce Central Canada, the founders’ efforts have focused on production of an ongoing series of podcasts and the development of mechanisms to harness Canadian thought leadership in support of workforce development initiatives.

During the 60-minute discussion, panelists quickly identified some of the most pressing issues facing Canada’s workforce and targeted related priorities that will earmark our national economic recovery. Here are highlights from that thought-provoking and animated conversation.

The Magnitude of Recent Job Losses

Citing recent Statistics Canada data, Steven Tobin from the Labour Market Information Council provided some sobering perspective to begin the conversation:

“When you look at what transpired in March and April, essentially the Canadian economy shed some 3 million jobs in those two months alone. For Canada, to think about what that 3 million translates into, it’s actually more jobs than we’ve lost in any of the past three recessions combined. And we’ve lost those jobs in two months.”

Calling this “a stark reminder of the size and magnitude of what we’re seeing”, he went on to describe what he called the “bronze lining” that is represented by the temporary nature of the bulk of this job loss in Canada. “The connection to the employer is still there for many” he said. “The question of course is how long we’ll be in this situation and the extent to which those people will be able to return to their jobs.” He also pointed to the important issue of disproportionate job losses among particularly vulnerable populations including low wage workers, women and youth. Unlike recovery following past recessions, “inclusive” recovery efforts will need to look beyond things like infrastructure investments that have historically worked to re-start economic engines.

Some of the Most Sought-After Skills Have Changed

According to LinkedIn’s Jake Hirsh-Allen, before COVID-19 “at the most aggregate level it actually looked quite similar to now. The most important skills are foundational human skills – leadership and management, creative problem solving and design thinking, and communication were ranked highest by managers for their new hires and employees, and also by those employees when they were looking to develop their own skills. On the technical side, with digital literacy adapting every week, it’s changed a fair bit. We’ve seen a huge emphasis on remote work. We are all having to learn a lot, really fast.” He went on to suggest that resilience and adaptability also belong on the list of foundational human skills as we see individuals challenged to apply themselves in new settings and in unprecedented ways. “No previous recession could prepare us for the changes this pandemic has brought.” Technical skills most in demand, he pointed out, are particular to specific sectors in different places (e.g. healthcare, IT).

Employers Facing Significant Challenges

Panelists acknowledged that when upheaval of this magnitude happens, the impact of job losses is immediate and draws our attention to the unemployed. Economic recovery, however, will also involve a substantial upheaval for employers as Canada’s economic engines fire up again. Trudy Parsons described the challenge for many employers in not only seeking qualified candidates to fill vacancies but even posting job openings and navigating the many tasks involved in the hiring process – all at a fast pace and potentially in large quantity. For some, this will be daunting as re-opening schedules are released and businesses look to gear up fully after extended closures. “The majority of the businesses in our communities are small to medium sized employers, and a lot of them do not have an HR department. There’s a real shift in the conversation that we need to be having with employers, to provide that concierge service or support system that helps them”.

Trudy pointed out that it’s often economic developers in communities who are first out the gate following an economic downturn or natural disaster, engaging with employers and informing policy to support recovery efforts. The pandemic has really accelerated the need for communities to amplify economic development planning, she said, and workforce issues will be top of mind as that unfolds.

The Challenge for Municipalities

Trudy also pointed to the drop in municipal revenues that will be a factor for economic recovery in communities across Canada. The financial impact of COVID-19 includes reductions or deferrals in property taxes and a drop in other revenue sources (e.g. recreation centre fees). “Many are forming economic recovery committees or task forces to bring people together, asking ‘what does this look like for my community?’.” The challenge for municipalities will be about positioning themselves to be responsive in creating or revising economic development strategies while also dealing with these pandemic-related financial implications. This will require integrated planning across economic and workforce development alongside considerations in housing, transportation, childcare and other areas. Among the questions posed: Who do municipalities need to be connecting with? How do we help to make those connections? From labour market information to Business Retention and Expansion (BR+E) initiatives and redirection of investments, there will be a range of key considerations and questions that cut across areas of municipal focus as recovery efforts unfold.

Online Learning Has Limits

Turning back to those in the workforce and students preparing for the start of their careers, the panel acknowledged that both job seekers and employers are having to rapidly shift and adapt in response to pandemic realities. Sarah Watts-Rynard from Polytechnics Canada spoke to the kinds of challenges ahead in the post-secondary context. She pointed out that innovations were already on their radar across Canada before COVID-19, and the need for these has accelerated as a result of the pandemic. While programming already included e-learning, blended learning and simulation-based learning models, these institutions had to react quickly to get students off-campus. “Many students across the county finished their last semester online. But online learning is an imperfect solution and really doesn’t recognize the needs of tactile learners,” she said. “It doesn’t allow for practical or lab work, it doesn’t provide those critical feedback loops, and I think that is necessary in so many occupations. A polytechnic education is industry focused, so it’s supposed to be responding to precisely what the industry demand looks like. And I don’t think we want a nurse or a veterinary technician to be taking blood after they learned about it online. And I think we’d feel the same about a mechanic working on our brakes having never held the wrench.”

Teaching in the applied education space, Sarah pointed out, has changed as well. “It was already demanding. The current environment means not only trying to translate what you know for the next generation but also now doing so in a format that doesn’t come as second nature to many instructors and really doesn’t allow for the same degree of interaction. To expect that applied education can move online, in my view, really undervalues the nature and importance of applied education. I think we have to ask ourselves how we offer the same value proposition to our students and to our industry partners in that environment, but I think it’s going to require some long term reckoning about how we as a society think about and value hands-on skills.”

NEETs and the Emerging Workforce

What are the implications of the pandemic for those who are Not in Employment, Education or Training – the NEET demographic? Gladys Okine from the Canadian Council for Youth Prosperity spoke to this question and said the first thing she is noticing is a “deprioritization” of this group. “They are not going to be the first hired or the first called back to work. There will be a lot more consideration of how much training and development they need…it’s going to be a steep uphill climb to continue to connect them to the labour market and support their ability to stay attached to it. That is going to become increasingly difficult. We’re waiting to see what it’s going to look like at the provincial level across the country in terms of how resources for employment and service training are going to be repurposed.”

Gladys cautioned that supports and resources will be vital for skill development and for job retention, and that interventions and the intermediaries who play a key role in facilitating them must be part of the response. “There have been severe disruptions, and there will continue to be disruptions, if we don’t get better organized about how to address it.” On the issue of access to digital resources and opportunities, she raised several concerns. “Online is not the solution to everything. It simply isn’t. It’s a great tool and intervention and option, where the necessary conditions facilitate that option. So if there is no broadband access, if there is no Internet, or your clients don’t actually have access to computers or laptops or the things they need to participate, simply moving your services online doesn’t solve the problem.” Gladys suggests the sector needs to better coordinate efforts to maximize resources “as an ecosystem.” She also pointed to the need for examining what safe service delivery looks like post-pandemic, particularly related to physical distancing in limited spaces and often with shared equipment. And, of importance, she reminded participants that “young people – students, youth with disabilities, young women, homeless youth, all young people – are really feeling the brunt of this and will continue to feel the brunt of this pandemic.”

Additional Pressing Priorities

Throughout the panel discussion, and in the simultaneous participantRising Stronger screen shotchat conversation that took place, several priorities emerged as key to the next steps in economic and workforce recovery. As the session came to a close, several additional priorities were acknowledged by panelists including:

  • Access to the Internet for learning, training, the provision of programs and services, and for business operations and e-commerce
  • Addressing the needs of the many unemployed individuals who are not connected to a school or employment support organization
  • Supporting workforce re-entry for marginalized individuals including necessary skills development in technology and digital literacy, upskilling, reskilling, continuous learning


What Should Happen Next?

  • Keep the conversation going
  • Get organized
  • Make sure to respond to today’s needs first – find the data and understand what it means, keep checking
  • Acknowledge that we do not have a national workforce development strategy and shift towards broader thinking
  • Think about what new opportunities will emerge and where, and what training might be required

This engaging discussion was moderated by Ron Painter from the National Association of Workforce Boards, whose international experience in workforce development was a tremendous asset in helping the panel explore and assess some very big questions.

The entire session was recorded and is available here: Rising Stronger.

Workforce Central Canada will be releasing a follow-up session featuring the panel’s responses to questions posed by participants and plans a series of podcasts focused on specific sectors. To stay informed about these and other developments, check the WCC website for updates:


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