Sept. 11 marks six months since the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic of COVID-19. We’re using this milestone to take stock of the policy response so far and consider next steps as Canada continues to move from reaction to rebuilding. As part of this, First Policy Response is speaking to several policy experts to gather their thoughts on the key policy developments of these past six months, and what they think our next priorities should be.

This interview with Pedro Barata, executive director of the Future Skills Centre at Ryerson University, is part of a series of interview transcripts that will run this week and next. You can read the full series here. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

 

FPR: It’s hard to know where to start when we’re talking about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the Canadian economy and the Canadian labour force. So what has been your impression of the some of the biggest impacts you’ve seen on employers over the last six months?

Pedro Barata: Of course, there’s the broader economic change that we’ve been seeing. We’ve just experienced an unprecedented period of economic disruption, with perhaps the most troublesome indicators being the level of job losses and the level of unemployment that has ensued. And even as we’ve seen some semblance of job returns . . . one in 10 Canadians are still unemployed. And we know that job quality, the issues around nonstandard and precarious employment, have probably intensified right now. The industries that have been the most affected, in terms of scale, by the pandemic, include industries like hospitality and retail, where you have a lot of employment that even at the best of times was not leaving people particularly secure. And now that’s been intensified, as we think about what lies behind the recovery door. And of course, a lot of people are probably not looking for work right now in this environment. So that 10 per cent [unemployment] figure most likely underestimates the number of people who are out of the labour market.

So that disruption’s there. And we’ve been talking to a whole range of employer groups, a whole range of sectors and industries, and we’ve been having ongoing conversations about what challenges and opportunities sectors are facing and how they are beginning to look beyond just the immediate response that I think everybody has had to prioritize, that has consumed almost all of the energy – quite understandably – of so many employer groups. But as we begin to think about the recovery, there is this sense that we do need to move from a quarter-to-quarter or an annual kind of approach, to thinking much more long-term about things like the acceleration of digital transformation. And sectors that we knew were going to be particularly impacted by technology, like agriculture and manufacturing and mining and construction, the impact of the pandemic has been uneven on those sectors. But I think the common thread across those industries and sectors is that everybody recognizes that whatever stood in the way, whatever resistance there was to really thinking about AI [artificial intelligence] and automation and machine learning and how we need to adopt those models to really make Canada more competitive on the world stage – [despite] whatever resistance and inertia there was to bringing that into the business model, it’s now front and centre. And I think the only thing that’s getting in the way of industry leaders really diving into that discussion about new business models is just bandwidth – the reality of dealing with the fallout of the pandemic, just the changes in the business model that people have faced. It’s really limited our ability to dream about, where do we need to be five to 10 years from now, and how do we begin to drive that transformation now? So I think that trend around acceleration around adopting new technology is something that employers and government is also looking at.

“If our economy is going to have all hands on deck two or three years from now – especially in an environment where we know that we need to move from a lower-skilled labour market to a higher-skilled labour market – we need to start investing in everybody now.”

There’s been a magnification, as well, of inequalities and gaps between social groups. Coming into this pandemic, we already knew that there are historically marginalized populations that, because of their gender, their race, their place of birth, their sexual orientation, their ability or disability, that all of those were factors that were already impacting who does well and who does less well, on average, in our society. And I think what we’re seeing is a magnification of those inequalities. Some of the conversations that we’re having now around the racialization of poverty and violence, they come from an awful place, but the upside is that we’re not simply ignoring those issues as a society. And hopefully we’ll continue to put the racialization and gendered nature of poverty and labour-market participation front and centre in how we design an economic recovery. I give people like Armine Yalnizyan a lot of credit for having trademarked the need for a “she-covery.” And hopefully we will do the same when it comes to really thinking about racial issues and Indigenous reconciliation.

And I mention that not just because it’s a moral or normative or values issue, but because there is this demographic reality around the Boomer tsunami – that’s not going to go away because of the pandemic. People are going to continue to age, and while it’s true that we will all work probably longer on average, those labour-force shortages that have been anticipated for a very long time are still going to be here two, three, four years from now. And one of the reasons why it’s really important for us to think about the growing gap based on social categories is that we’re actually giving up on talent that we’re going to need. And we are not leveraging the very best out of everybody. And if our economy is going to have all hands on deck two or three years from now – especially in an environment where we know that we need to move from a lower-skilled labour market to a higher-skilled labour market as new technologies replace those lower-skilled jobs and require people to have higher skills – if we’re going to do that, we need to start investing in everybody now. And right now we’re not doing that.

And the third piece is really about training and skills, because change means not doing things in the same way that we were doing them before. And by definition, we’re going to win as an economy on the global stage if we actually adapt our labour force to be at the forefront of adopting those new technologies and continuing to skill up. Canada already has the highest proportion of working-age adults who have post-secondary education. That’s a really good sign, but how do we not lose that momentum and ensure that, that continues to be a trend in how we skill people? And we know that in Canada, only half of Canadians actually get any kind of workplace-based training, even though that is often cited by those who have that benefit as one of the most important aspects in their lifelong development and education. So if we’re going to have all hands on deck, if we’re actually going to get ahead of the curve and come out of this pandemic with the recovery – which is not simply about holding things as they are, but about leapfrogging a lot of perennial issues that we knew were going to be there anyway – then we’re really looking at a skills-training agenda which includes access to skills no matter where you are in your life cycle or life journey; more partnerships with employers in terms of employer-based training; and ensuring that we are actually proactively addressing barriers that get in the way of groups accessing those skills and training, be it systemic issues like discrimination or the cost of an education, or the fact that you can’t find childcare or that your housing is too expensive, or that there may be some mental health issues or trauma in your life that’s preventing you from doing that. We need to think about skills development within that comprehensive format if we’re going to really move together in a recovery which is about all of us.

 

FPR: Has there been something about this economic crisis in particular that’s revealed or underscored the gaps in skills for the Canadian workforce?

We’ve done a pretty good job of moving to remote work. It’s actually incredible how quickly that adoption happened and how both employers created those conditions and the workforce just kind of went with it. That wasn’t the reality for everybody – there are a lot of people who continue to work in physical environments through all of this. But I think that there’s been perhaps more manifest recognition that Canada is not as far ahead of the curve, when it comes to AI adoption, as we need to be. And that’s been a perennial conversation. It’s not like anybody’s been avoiding a conversation about what AI is going to do to our businesses and our workforce, even to our governments. But I think that the latest cycle that we’ve been through that has slowed a lot of things down has at the same time accelerated a real drive to just get on with it, and to do things that maybe we weren’t prepared to do before.

We’re seeing this even from senior public-sector administrators who recognize that the level of disruption that we’ve seen now in the pandemic – the demands that have been put on governments not only [at the federal level] to do an absolutely spectacular job to implement a brand new income-security system through CERB [the Canada Emergency Response Benefit], but also to make sure that people within municipal social services are redeployed to focus on testing centres and shelters. And I think that in the public service, there’s a growing recognition that technology actually needs to be leveraged in ways that we haven’t had the time to think about and that we haven’t had the time to really experiment with. And I’m seeing more and more take-up from, again, senior public-sector administrators who are approaching us and who really want to figure out how is it that, working with their workforce, we can start to design some new models that leverage technology to help accelerate the business of government in a way that’s really human-centred.

“I think the pandemic has underscored how important that adaptation, nimbleness, resilience is going to be moving forward – because this is not going to be the last time that we’ll be facing disruption.”

I think as well, we’ve come a long way from talking about “soft skills” to understanding the importance of social and emotional skills. I think the pandemic has underscored the importance of resilience, adaptability, global competencies and working in teams in new and different ways, real critical thinking as we try to develop new models. We’ve come a long way from just talking about soft skills to now understanding that social and emotional skills are actually one of the three essential legs of the stool in terms of skills framework, alongside foundational skills like reading, writing, arithmetic and now digital everything, and employer- or sector-based skills that are very specific to a job. We all recognized that was important, increasingly. I think the pandemic has underscored how important that adaptation, nimbleness, resilience is going to be moving forward – because this is not going to be the last time that we’ll be facing disruption. And we have a lot of work ahead of us in figuring out how that third leg of the stool is actually embedded in our curriculum and in how we teach and how we develop skills. There are new models that are emerging that are giving it the importance that it deserves, but it does remain kind of a poor cousin in terms of emphasis, and we need to turn that around really quickly. Because you ask employers these days, “What are the top things that you’re really looking for in your workforce and from your employees?” And, yeah, it’s the degrees and it’s the fact that you’ve got your engineering bona fides and that you can work in digital. Yes, it’s all of those, but the real differentiating factor is your ability to change as your job is going to continue to change, and to adapt to that and to go with it, to be resilient and to keep learning. To be able to work in teams where you’re going to be working with people who bring a different perspective to the table, different skills to table. And you’ve got to embrace that and want to leverage it. It’s the ability to think critically and not just check all the boxes, but to actually be in a mindset of continuous improvement and to be able to think about that as you fill out your tasks. All of that, those are the differentiating factors. I think we’re not quite there yet, but at least there’s a realization now more than ever that, that needs to be the way that we move forward.

 

FPR: What else are you hearing from the business community and employers, as they’re looking to both recover from this and also rebuild and move on? What are they saying they need?

The place to start right now is just the immediate challenges of even keeping doors open. And that really varies. You know, the business community is not one thing – it’s actually a bunch of segments. And one of the primary things we’ve been learning is that in some sectors, there is just a drastic decline in terms of opportunities. Like in hospitality, for example, like 60 per cent displacement in terms of the workforce, complete uncertainty about what the recovery going to look like for hospitality. Then there is the reality of retail – also huge changes, huge displacement, at the same time that going from bricks-and-mortar to digital also presents huge challenges and huge opportunities. So what is the innovation that needs to happen within that sector? And how do you support SMEs [small and medium enterprises] in particular to transition through that change? And then you’ve got sectors that are really mixed, like manufacturing. All the alarm bells around the “death of manufacturing in Canada,” I think it’s a little bit overstated, especially in a reshoring context. And I think the story is more mixed. There are some parts within manufacturing that are continuing to face the declines, but there are other sectors that, because of reshoring, and if we get ahead of technology, actually have room to grow in Canada.

And then there are sectors that are seeing a lot of upside, like agriculture. Agriculture will continue to be a really important part of the economy for Canada. It will change in terms of the job profile. And the industry is not standing still. It’s preparing to imagine what the future needs to be and where we go in that direction. I’m seeing the same thing from biotech. Especially in a pandemic, I think that there’s a renewed appreciation for the role of biotech, just in terms of helping to solve some issues that, if we’re not nimble and we’re not world leaders when it comes to this space, we’re going to be in real trouble moving forward.

I think there were some perennial issues that we now need to get out in front of. Business has been, frankly, under-investing in education. And the onset of work-integrated learning, I think, has been quite helpful, and really engaging employers and seeing the value of education within training and creating a pipeline of talent. We’re seeing a lot of partnerships come forward that include both employers and post-secondary education institutions, colleges in particular, that are thinking about how industries are changing and how partnerships between employers and post-secondary education can help shift the focus of the skills profile so that we’re not just anticipating the needs here and now, but we’re actually anticipating that in the context of a recovery five years from now and what does that look like.

I think that there’s a huge appetite to actually have solutions based on evidence about what works, and frankly, that’s been really missing within our ecosystem. I think we’ve been really busy within the skills development ecosystem in just helping a lot of individuals, providing a lot of services, but not always incentivizing a learning agenda that actually asks, are these things working? Are they delivering better outcomes for both employers and for the individuals who go through this training? And can we get into a situation where we’re rigorously evaluating our interventions in a way that’s not about catching people doing things wrong, and in a way that doesn’t compromise the work of the service providers, but is truly focused on continuous improvement? And right now the incentive structure around how skills development gets funded, it doesn’t always incentivize a DNA or a culture of learning. It actually incentivizes a culture of competition. And that makes it very difficult for the skills-development ecosystem to actually have a very strong value proposition with employers based on what works, because everything has to work all the time. Otherwise you lose funding. We need to move beyond that. And hopefully one of the things that emerges out of this pandemic is that there’s a sense that there’s no one sector, no one organization or institution, that can actually figure this out by themselves. And that this spirit of collaboration that we’re kind of seeing emerge sticks, and we finally break the silos between the thought leaders and the employers and the HR councils and the post-secondary education institutions and the community-based organizations that are actually closest to those who are furthest from the margin when it comes to labour force, and we really start to think about that as an ecosystem rather than as a bunch of ships in the night. . . . Employers need a value proposition from the skills-development ecosystem, which is: Let’s do this in a way that is more integrated, that actually brings value, that brings you the right workers with the right skills based on models about what works. And it’s not just a one-time thing but it has an ongoing, dynamic relationship around how those industries will continue to change; where we’re collecting data; where we’re figuring out the changing needs of the employer and the workforce; where we’re adapting the interventions in real-time in terms of helping workers keep up with the changes in their industry so that we all win in the end.

“If we accept the premise that increasingly you’re not going to be in a job for life … then we’re going to need to make sure that we have a really strong, modern, responsive income-security system.”

FPR: From a policy perspective, is there anything that you would like to see, or that you think policy-makers could do, to help to enable that?

I’d name three things. No. 1 is, if we accept the premise – which was there before the pandemic – that increasingly work is going to require flexibility, that you’re not going to be in a job for life, that changing jobs and careers is actually going to be a core feature of your working life moving forward. If we accept that – and it’s inevitable, it’s here – and if we care about Canadians, then we’re going to need to make sure that we have a really strong, modern, responsive income-security system. We need to ensure that Canadians are able to maintain their economic security, their standard of living, through a changing economy. Because if we don’t have strong unemployment insurance, if we don’t have strong systems around childcare, if Canadians can not hold onto their housing as they go through job changes, if job changes are so stressful that they lead to mental health issues that are not addressed on the front end – if we don’t do any of that, we’re going to get more of what we had pre-pandemic, which is a growing bifurcation in the labour market between those who can have good jobs and those who have shitty jobs. Growing income inequality in our society is not a new factor. I think it’s fair to say that after every economic downturn, income inequality becomes worse. So here we are, this is the biggest income downturn in our lifetime, and we have a choice to make: Do we simply keep going along with outdated income-security programs that are essentially going to allow people to fall through the cracks, and will lead to even greater income inequality? Or are we going to say we’re all in this together and we’re going to just embrace the fact that people are going to be going on a nonlinear employment path, but we’re going to have their back as they go through this change? So this conversation that we’re having in Canada right now about post-CERB, how we need to really come up with new solutions around EI [Employment Insurance], it is long overdue and frankly, it’s table stakes. If we don’t get that right then I think that whatever agenda we have around Canada as a place where everybody belongs and where we’re all in this together and where we’re really investing in each other, to make sure that we’re at our best – it starts with a strong income-security system.

Secondly, within that, we also have to make sure that we don’t have generic policy. I think that what we’ve seen, especially through this conversation around Indigenous reconciliation and lately around Black Lives Matter, is that we can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach to public policy. We have to recognize that for historical reasons, communities face systemic barriers that are both around discrimination and the behaviour that holds them back. But they are also systemic from the point of view of looking at who is most likely to live in poverty, who is least likely to have good jobs, who is most likely to be in housing that doesn’t meet their needs, who is least likely to have access to quality childcare, who is most likely to be impacted by a health pandemic, depending on their postal code. All of those things are real, and both in terms of our data collection and how we’ve done big policy, we have not done a good enough job of looking at disproportionate impacts. And I think we need to come to that realization, especially in the area of skills-development policy. If we don’t acknowledge that people are all starting from a different starting line and that we are going to need to be non-generic in our interventions, we’re going to fail.

Third is that, as part of the recovery strategy, skills development and lifelong learning need to be an essential part of the playbook moving forward. And that means that we need to improve the ecosystem that exists now. This is not always about new money – there’s actually a lot of investment going into skills development right now. But we need to make sure that, that investment is more data-driven, more client-centred, more responsive to the demand side and what employers need. And we need to make sure that we’re also supporting the ecosystem to grow and innovate and get better. You can’t rely on organizations to just figure this out by themselves. We actually need an agenda of capacity-building technical assistance. We need that infrastructure within the system. We need to work with employers to ensure that more than one in two Canadians actually gets training. There’s no reason why we can’t break silos between employers and educators and skills-development providers to ensure that employers see the value proposition of skills development and are actually working more collaboratively with institutions outside of their four walls, or their digital reality.

And the final thing I’ll say is that there’s a Part 2 to Employment Insurance. Part 1 is about money and income replacement. Part 2 is about helping re-skill you and equip you for your new career. And right now the EI box has been really narrow on the income-replacement side. It’s also been really narrow on the training side. So as we enter into this conversation about a new approach to EI that’s modernized, we really need to focus on both parts, Part 1 and Part 2. And we have not spent enough time thinking about Part 2. It’s inevitable that, that will become part of the conversation. I’m really excited about that piece and it needs to be as important as income replacement.

 

FPR: If there’s one thing that’s going to be really key in going from where we’ve been in this last few months to having a full recovery, and preparing for the future and not just dealing with the crisis at hand, where do you think those policy efforts need to be?

I think we have an opportunity here to put both Canadian workers and Canadian business at the centre of skills development. So from a skills-development point of view, I think that this is our opportunity to really make sure that we are understanding the very dynamic nature of job transitions that are going to be happening moving forward in the recovery, and that those transitions are going to be very dynamic, because they will look different for people employed in different sectors. It will look different for people at different geographies. It will look different for people from different backgrounds. And the worst thing we can do is to have a generic approach to how we think about skills development. We actually need to start from where the person is and we need to get a whole lot better at doing that. So that’s No. 1.

No. 2 is, we need to be more demand-driven, and we’ve been talking about this forever. And I think the opening is there from employers to co-create more of their strategy for the future, given the uncertainty that we’re in. Some employers and some industries are seeing declines that will be seismic in terms of the future of their industry. Others are seeing opportunities like they’ve never seen before. And this is a really ripe space for collaboration and for coming forward with solutions that engage government, business, community, education, labour in new ways. And we can’t let that moment slip through our fingers, that spirit of collaboration, of figuring out how we start from a problem or an opportunity and all identify our stake in a shared strategy.

The recovery can really be built that kind of a culture of collaboration and ensuring that the outcome is an ongoing DNA of us really seeing this through together. Honestly, on the ground, I am seeing much more of that as a result of just the disruption than I have seen prior to that.

 

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Pedro Barata is the executive director of the Future Skills Centre.