Headlines about the changing nature of work, automation, and the threat of worker displacement have become hackneyed, and the underlying challenges they point to risk being buried in hype. But, as demonstrated by General Motors Canada’s announcement earlier this week, these challenges are impacting people now. GM Canada revealed it will be shutting down its plant in Oshawa, ON, as part of a larger restructuring that includes a focus on electric and autonomous vehicles, putting more than 2,500 employees out of work.

To build an economy that is inclusive and equitable, now and into the future, Canadians need to have a more understated and practical conversation. This is not a conversation about the new and shiny. Promising models for training people into jobs and for promoting decent work already exist – but we’re not good at identifying them and we don’t invest nearly enough in testing and evaluating what works. When we do discover something that works, we’re not good at scaling it.

Changes in technology have dramatically reshaped labour markets throughout history, benefiting some and making life harder for others. The magnitude of change today is probably not all that different. What should be different is our response.

Leaders from the public, private and nonprofit sectors should work together to identify, adapt and evaluate a range of different models for helping people who come from different communities and regions, and who have different skill sets and needs, to succeed in a changing economy. We need to scale what works rather than stopping at the pilot phase. But we don’t have to invent these models from scratch.

North Carolina’s BioWork certificate program – explored in a recent case study report from the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship – is one example of a model that could be modified to meet the needs of some of Canada’s workers and employers.

Automation, offshoring and increased international competition have hit traditional manufacturing sectors in North Carolina hard. Between 1996 and 2006, these sectors lost over 200,000 jobs, displacing many mid- and late-career production line workers. During the same period, the number of biomanufacturing firms setting up shop in North Carolina rapidly increased, and employers struggled with a shortage of qualified production-line technicians.

Collaboration between industry, colleges and the state government created the BioWork program in 2001, to meet the talent requirements of a growing industry and to provide an opportunity for displaced workers to retrain. It was created together with employers, to provide a trusted credential and to align with skill demand. Comprising short modular sessions that could be completed in a few weeks, it was designed with the flexibility to fit participants’ learning objectives and schedules. Eligibility requirements ensured access for people who had no university or college degree, and no prior experience in biomanufacturing, but who possessed transferable skills and experience.

Another example with potential applications in Canada is Nokia’s Bridge program, implemented to manage the fallout of significant company restructuring in 2011. Technological advancements and global competitive pressures, notably Apple’s launch of the iPhone, forced Nokia to move out of the mobile phone industry. This decision resulted in thousands of layoffs in Finland, where the company is headquartered.

Through the Bridge program, Nokia engaged 5,000 soon-to-be-displaced workers with varying skills and education profiles, with the aim of providing different paths to reinclusion in their local economies. These paths included re-employment, further education and entrepreneurship – in some cases leveraging intellectual property developed at Nokia. The program was designed and implemented in collaboration with affected employees and with support from government and a range of regional partners, including post-secondary institutions, local economic development teams and startup incubators.

While it didn’t work for everyone, the Bridge program helped communities retain talent and reduced the severity of the consequences of a displaced workforce. A 2014 survey found that over three-quarters of participants were re-employed, studying or engaged in entrepreneurship. By supporting spinoff companies and promoting increased funding and interest in entrepreneurship, the program also contributed to the growth of regional startup ecosystems.

No model is a silver bullet, but these examples highlight that we are not facing the challenge of a shifting labour market in a vacuum. They also underscore the importance of designing programs that are tailored to the needs of different workers, employers and regions. We can borrow from these and other models, but they will work only if relevant stakeholders in Canada – including governments, employers, post-secondary institutions, training organizations, unions and workers – participate in their design and see their goals and interests reflected in them.

Identifying promising models and adapting them to local contexts are the first steps in developing solutions that will help Canada’s workers and firms navigate the changing nature of work. But we won’t know if their goals are being realized unless we invest in evaluation. And we won’t see the return on this investment unless we fully commit to scaling what works.

This article is part of the Preparing citizens for the future of work special feature.

Photo: Shutterstock, by mamanamsai

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Sarah Doyle
Sarah Doyle is director of policy and research at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Previously she worked at the Centre for Impact Investing at the MaRS Discovery District and for the Privy Council Office. She holds a master of science in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Sarah Villeneuve
Sarah Villeneuve is a policy analyst at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship, a think tank focused on Canadian innovation policy.
Diana Rivera
Diana Rivera is an economist at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship at Ryerson University who studies the impact of innovation developments and policies on labour.

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