When the town of Janesville, Wisc., lost its General Motors plant, some 2,000 people in a town of just over 60,000 enrolled in the local community college. Nearly half of the attendees never finished their degree, primarily because they could not afford to take even two years away from the workforce. If governments want to be prepared for the millions of workers unemployed by COVID-19 to return to the workforce in a stable and long-term manner, they will need to start preparing now, primarily by empowering their educational institutions to embrace new models that have a direct impact on employment.

In that vein, the StrategyCorp Institute of Public Policy and Economy was commissioned by Colleges Ontario to produce a research paper on the future of work and the impact of COVID-19 on the labour force. That paper, published Wednesday, aims not only to analyze the impact of the pandemic on Ontario’s workforce, but to provide government with actionable solutions to allow for the rapid re-training and re-skilling of workers by embracing microcredential programs and giving colleges more autonomy over their course programming.

When we started the paper, we did a quick search in Google Scholar for “future of work Canada” to see how much literature had been compiled on the topic. That search yielded approximately five million published results. Despite this immense catalogue of research, there is no consensus on what the future of work will ultimately entail for Ontarians and Canadians. For example, the number of jobs forecasted to be automated ranges from as low as 6 per cent of the workforce to as high as 59 per cent. The projected timeline for automation ranges from the next 10 to the next 50 years.

The predicted skills that Ontario’s future workforce will need to succeed in the labour market are similarly inconsistent. Although common themes arise, such as the growing demand for employees with robust “soft” skills such as verbal communication and problem-solving, forecasts for technical skills both change and contradict each other frequently. While it is impossible to accurately predict the nature and magnitude of labour-market change, there is no doubt that change is on its way. In many instances, including in Ontario, that change is already here and being accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The health-turned-economic crisis has thrown many of even the most informed labour-market projections into disarray. With businesses and policy-makers navigating through uncharted territory, job postings have plummeted, unemployment has reached historic highs, and many businesses have been forced to close permanently. For many Ontario businesses, the automation of certain functions is no longer just a potential cost-saver, but a health necessity. While the ultimate role COVID-19 will play in shaping Ontario’s future of work remains uncertain, the province’s workforce will undoubtedly neither look nor behave the same as it did before the pandemic.

Our main takeaway from this impressive catalogue of research on the future of work was that none of these studies focussed on the impact to the actual individual: what will the “future of work” mean for the individual worker? Both pre- and post-outbreak analysis has largely focused on how labour market change will impact large businesses and governments, rather than the individuals employed by them or even small business owners and entrepreneurs. The “future of work” problem presented by economists is often pitched for government and industry leaders to solve, rather than for individuals to address in their day-to-day lives.

Indeed, while much has been written on what Ontario’s future workforce will look like, less attention has been paid to how individual workers actually make the transition from the work of today to the work of tomorrow. This white paper seeks to address the gap between the future of work and the future of workers, with particular attention paid to the role of an Ontario college education in preparing the workforce for a volatile economy.

The reality future workers will face must reconcile with, and ultimately be embraced by, Ontario’s institutions. Governments will be forced to react swiftly to voters’ profound concerns over the lack of stable employment or jobs for which they are qualified. Once temporary employment assistance programs expire, Ontario’s re-employment centres will face a spike in demand, and simply connecting the unemployed with publicly listed job vacancies will no longer suffice in an economy where up to 94 per cent of new jobs created are impermanent by nature.

The most important necessity that will arise from this transition is the ability for institutions, primarily those in education, to adapt quickly and address demand. Programs that fail to value speed or updated curricula will not alleviate the pressures of putting food on the table. A tendency toward lengthy programming will not satiate governments’ desire to swiftly reduce unemployment, generate tax revenue, and lower the number of individuals relying on welfare support as the provincial government heads towards an election in early summer 2022.

For workers unable to pinpoint and plan for future skill shortages, flexibility must be the priority. That is why this paper is broken down into three parts. First, we examine the labour trends occurring in Ontario before and after COVID-19, including but not limited to the growing skills gap and the diminishing opportunities for less educated workers, especially in Ontario’s rural communities.

Then, we show why Ontario’s 24 public colleges are well positioned to take on this challenge. Eighty-six per cent of 2016-17 college graduates were actively working in the labour force less than six months after their graduation. Ontarians have recognized the direct applicability of a college education, too, with 18 per cent of college attendees having already completed a university degree before enrolling in a college program. Ontario’s colleges have higher proportions of minority, rural, immigrant and Indigenous students than other Ontario post-secondary institutions. Most importantly, they are geographically spread out across the province, with campuses in more than 200 of the province’s 444 municipalities, and are primarily focussed on preparing students for direct applicability in the labour market.

Finally, the paper puts forward 17 recommendations that will help colleges with significantly higher demands on capacity due to increased enrolment, a need for quicker and more frequent learning, employer-targeted course structures, adaptable curriculums, more online capabilities, and even a potential need to stabilize rural and Northern communities and their economies. These recommendations ultimately culminate in one core thesis: if colleges are to succeed in taking on the challenge of rapidly re-training the labour force for the challenges of the future, they will need to be given the tools to do so.

 

Mitchell Davidson is the Executive Director of the StrategyCorp Institute of Public Policy and Economy.

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Mitchell Davidson is the executive director of the StrategyCorp Institute of Public Policy and Economy and the former policy chief to Ontario Premier Doug Ford.