The topic of skills development for working-age adults seems to take centre stage when labour markets face a new “unprecedented challenge” – be it new technologies or changing demographics – only to disappear from media headlines soon after the hype dies down. This time, however, because of the impact of COVID-19, the need for new skills is driven by an ongoing reallocation of labour across economic sectors and jobs, as some sectors lay off thousands of workers while others create new jobs. As many people consider changing careers due to the pandemic, the reallocation trend promises to continue for some time.

A modern skills-development system can help Canadians take advantage of these structural changes, but it should be based on evidence and top-quality research. The Future of Skills and Adult Learning research program at the Institute for Research on Public Policy mobilizes and promotes knowledge from various fields of academic research and practice areas.

Recent publications under this program demonstrate that negative labour-market outcomes are consistently associated with having less education. René Morissette and Theresa Hanqing Qiu find that, all else being equal, the lower one’s educational attainment, the higher the risk of being laid off. Once laid off, workers with a high school diploma or less education are the least likely to be reemployed within one year, compared with other laid-off workers without university degrees. In a second study, the authors show that laid-off workers with less education tend to do less to adapt to job loss by changing regions, upgrading skills or starting a business than those with a bachelor’s degree or higher credential.

Marc Frenette and Kristyn Frank show that one in three workers without diplomas, certificates or degrees hold jobs with a high risk of automation, compared to only one in 30 workers with bachelor’s degrees. Moreover, among workers without post-secondary qualifications, those with lower literacy levels are more likely to be at a high risk than those with higher levels of literacy.

In another study, the authors show that since 1987, the share of workers employed in routine-task jobs fell. For workers with a high school diploma or less education, the drop in the share of routine manual jobs was offset by more opportunities in service occupations. But, as we have seen, jobs in service occupations were among the hardest-hit during the pandemic. Many of these jobs won’t be coming back.

Now that provinces have lifted many pandemic-induced restrictions, reopening businesses seek employees. Being unemployed or furloughed for months carries a risk of skill atrophy and loss of job routine. Even if skill atrophy may be less of a problem for workers laid off during the pandemic, those with less education may feel it more acutely. What’s more, to take advantage of job opportunities in the months ahead, workers will need to consider changing their skill sets, perhaps substantially so.

How do we meet their training needs in the best way? Some learning paths are clear as they lead to existing education and training programs. Policy-makers must focus on making them more effective at providing in-demand skills. Karen Myers and her colleagues from Blueprint suggest that training can help workers obtain and keep jobs, as long as it aligns with employers’ needs.

Two approaches – sector-based training and a “Career Pathways” model – offer great potential in improving trainees’ employment prospects. The Career Pathways model is especially interesting because it combines sector-based training with traditional college instruction. As its name suggests, the Career Pathways model organizes training along a series of steps toward employment in a chosen sector and allows trainees to continuously engage with the “pathway.”

Given the interest among many unemployed Canadians to change employment sectors, Career Pathways training offers unique opportunities to obtain a career, rather than just a job. Trainees also benefit from career counselling that is otherwise unavailable for working-age adults (unlike career counselling services available for youth). The need for guidance with education planning and employment strategies is especially pronounced for the less-educated.

This leads us to a second item for policy-makers’ “to-do” list: making learning paths easy to find and navigate. As Tony Bonen and Matthias Oschinski recommend, Canada needs an information tool linking training and education programs with the skills they provide and the jobs that use those skills. Without reliable and up-to-date information, Canadians risk making training choices that are out of step with labour market needs or may not pursue training at all.

The authors propose a detailed roadmap toward the creation of such a tool and a pilot project to test it. This type of endeavour requires collaboration and co-operation across all levels of government, education and training providers, employers, unions and other stakeholders.

Third, policy-makers must ensure that learning is accessible for those who need it most – and that isn’t necessarily about funding. Federal and provincial governments provide substantial support for post-secondary education. However, many adults who struggle in the labour market lack basic education. Low levels of literacy, numeracy and digital skills, as well as not having a high school diploma prevent these adults from taking advantage of higher education. Despite available courses offered free of charge to help adults obtain basic education and improve employment skills, the problem persists. In the coming months, we will share the work of experts in this area to gain a better understanding of what ails adult education in Canada and how to overcome the problems it faces.

Access to employer-provided training is also out of reach for many workers with low basic skills. Not only do employers prefer investing in more-educated employees, they also tend to provide training in less-transferable job-specific skills, thus minimizing the risk of losing employees to competitors. Can policy-makers motivate and help businesses expand the range of training offerings?

The experiences from the provinces that have been active in encouraging businesses to invest in their employees may provide answers. Early on in the pandemic, the Quebec government offered funding to firms willing to improve their staff’s basic and digital skills, thus taking advantage of time freed up by the work interruption. We need more research to evaluate the effectiveness of this initiative and to understand other approaches to employer-provided training in the province and Canada-wide.

Finally, no education and skills-training system can be successful without understanding the workers’ side of the story. Yet, their voices are often missing on the topic. Participation rates of adult Canadians in training and their self-reported training needs are based on surveys dating back to 2012 or earlier. As well, we need to understand what really motivates adults to seek training and how they perceive their skills gaps. Answering these questions may require going beyond collecting survey data.

There is no doubt that the Canadian skills-development system for working-age adults is facing challenges. To meet these challenges, we must rely on high-quality evidence-based research. Relevant and timely data and interest on the part of researchers and training practitioners are key to making it possible.

The IRPP’s « Future of Skills and Adult Learning » research program invites academic researchers in relevant fields and training practitioners to share their work with the program’s director, Natalia Mishagina at nmishagina@irpp.org.

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Natalia Mishagina
Natalia Mishagina est directrice de recherche à l’IRPP. Elle était auparavant chercheuse au Centre interuniversitaire de recherche en analyse des organisations (CIRANO) et avait été économiste au cabinet Analysis Group.

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