(Cet article a été traduit en français.)
In recent years, there have been significant commitments from federal and provincial governments in terms of skills investments. Despite this, there appears to be a lack of understanding about the future of work and what will be needed for a more inclusive future. While investing in skills is important, policies that provide structural support, such as income guarantees, affordable housing and other social investments, are also needed.
At the Future Skills Centre, we have a front row seat to many of these conversations about skills development. We are actively building evidence and knowledge about which skills investments are effective, for whom and under what conditions. For example, our consortium partner Blueprint found that half of participants in a skills assessment and development program with the Immigrant Employment Council of BC (IEC-BC), had achieved employment five months after joining the program. This and other research highlights the multi-dimensional issues intersecting with skills, particularly for equity-seeking groups who face the most barriers to equitable and inclusive employment opportunities.
For example, we know that while participants in a training program may improve their skills and land a job, they also need affordable housing, child care and other necessities to participate in the labour force. We need to consider these wider dimensions as integral to “job quality.”
What issues are most germane to the quality of work? There are several critical dimensions for Canadian policy-makers and others to consider.
Wages are a key measure by which employees assess potential work. However, income is not the only dimension of a high-quality work environment. Higher education and income levels are associated with higher job satisfaction because physical working conditions, type of work required and associated benefits all tend to improve as education and income levels increase. However, research shows also that job satisfaction entails more than just income and includes stress, working conditions and other aspects. The quality of work extends beyond income to other dimensions.
A wide range of social supports are used by people to get working and stay healthy. Employer benefits may include supplementary health or dental insurance. Individuals may purchase additional benefits such as life or disability insurance or supplementary health programs such as massage therapy.
However, there are other public benefits and investments that assist people as they make their way in the work world, including affordable child care, housing and transportation. Without these essentials, many people can’t fully participate in the economy.
The concept of benefits needs to expand beyond smaller supplements provided by select employers to include a wider toolkit for ensuring workers’ economic participation and shared prosperity. This will be especially critical as a higher proportion of people are self-employed or as the number of “gig” workers expands, leaving fewer and fewer people with access to employer-provided benefits.
Many people value predictability and some measure of security in their work environment. The pandemic has heightened economic uncertainty for some groups, particularly those in precarious situations. Throughout the pandemic, some sectors and occupations experienced multiple rounds of public health closures (including thousands of hospitality and food service workers). Improving the quality of work in Canada may involve more support for basic income security and career transition planning and guidance.
The rise of gig work has increased the precarious nature of employment for wide swaths of workers. Young people, service workers and creative fields are particularly affected. While the federal government is undertaking consultations toward a reform of the employment insurance (EI) program, the outcome must ensure that improved employment security – including ensuring that parental leave, employment insurance and a living wage are not the purview of only some workers, but are widely accessible.
Employers have been challenged in recent years to ensure adequate health and security for employees while also keeping their businesses open. While the conversation has mostly focused on physical health risks, our research shows that mental health is also a significant factor in work quality for Canadians.
Recent discussions about work-life balance, including right-to-disconnect legislation, is already playing out within Canadian workplaces. Research shows that employer practices, including scheduling flexibility and approaches to diversity and inclusion, are crucial to creating a high-quality work environment. Employers who are able to innovate and lead in the area of diversity, equity and inclusion will be the models for our future.
We know that people consistently rate opportunities for learning, growth and development as core aspects of their quality of work. The Future Skills Centre frequently hears from employers that skill development is critical to their goals as well. For example, in one study of the automotive industry by the Diversity Institute at Ryerson University, skill development was reported to be critical for employers as they navigate a rapidly changing economy and as they are looking for employees’ skills to drive their growth.
Similarly, in a recent survey of employers across Canada, 75 per cent reported that a shortage of skilled workers was very or somewhat challenging for them. Yet many (particularly for those in small and medium-sized enterprises) aren’t aware of support or services for employees in skills development and career planning.
However, another survey also found that 73 per cent of employers agreed they also have a responsibility to provide career management programs for their employees. Skills development and career management is more crucial than ever, and there need to be strong policies in place to ensure the solutions are targeted and effective.
From individuals to systems
Investing in quality work can transform lives. We see evidence of life-changing programs from newly arrived immigrants finding a job in their areas of expertise; to young people navigating their entrance to the labour force; to mid-career workers seeking new opportunities in growing sectors; and employers strengthening their workforce through skills investments. These are critical tools for ensuring an equitable recovery as well as an inclusive and prosperous future that includes income and benefits, a good work environment and employment security.
Employment policy in Canada should ensure that investments benefit both workers and employers.
This article is part of the Future of Work and Skills Training special feature series.