Gaps in Indigenous education and skills training harm Indigenous business and overall economic growth. Better data are needed to address the problem.

Turning 15 is an important milestone; it’s the age when a person becomes a potential member of the workforce. Over the course of 10 years (between 2016 and 2026), 350,000 Indigenous youth will turn 15. However, to get and keep good jobs, basic essential skills are needed. And many Indigenous youth and adults do not graduate high school, or they graduate without requisite essential literacy and numeracy skills.

There are many reasons for this, including:

  • chronic under-funding of quality on-reserve education;
  • the challenge of acquiring reliable internet in remote conditions;
  • the myriad corollary effects of growing up in households disproportionately impacted by poverty, and in households impacted by residential school syndrome.

More and more, literacy and numeracy skills are the foundation to upskilling and meeting the demands of rapidly changing and increasingly digital workplaces. People missing these foundational skills are missing opportunities for competitive jobs. They face the threat of job disruption due to automation, being underqualified to gain workforce entry, having skills and experience that is not transferable to the knowledge economy leaving them without the tools they need to adapt and succeed.

If this cohort could get the support they need to build essential skills through access to quality, targeted, and culturally appropriate education, skills and training, they would boost the country’s economy by $27.7 billion annually. Otherwise, it’s a lost opportunity for all. Successfully filling this skills gap holds the door open for new Indigenous employees and employers to realize their talent and potential.

In the interest of exploring that potential boon, a paper for Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute and the Public Policy Forum, with the collaboration of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, examines Indigenous people’s prospects for future work. Mapping the Landscape: Indigenous skills training and jobs in Canada looks at current skills training and suggests areas for future research, reinforcing the case for developing Indigenous skills in a more cohesive way.

The numbers tell an important story: Between 2006 and 2016, the Indigenous population grew at four times the rate of the non-Indigenous population, though Indigenous peoples experience poorer socio-economic outcomes, higher unemployment rates and lower levels of education. Indigenous peoples cite a lack of jobs, education, training and work experience as reasons for unemployment. This is not only a supply-side issue, however. Even at higher numeracy and literacy skill levels, First Nations people have a significantly lower probability of employment (75 percent) than Métis (87 percent) or non-Indigenous Canadians (90 percent). Even lower-skilled non-Indigenous people have a higher probability of employment than First Nations people (87 percent). Meanwhile, workplace bullying and discrimination causes some Indigenous peoples to leave employment.

A 2014 study suggests that First Nations women fare worse than men due to discrimination based on the intersection of race, ethnicity and gender. Women are more likely to head single-parent households, and need upskilling support through the provision of accessible transport options and affordable childcare services. Social inequality is also increasing in Indigenous communities. Basic inequities such as inaccessibility of sewage treatment and water sanitation facilities, and crowded and poorly built housing on reserves create chronic levels of poor health. These conditions are tinderboxes for public health crises, including COVID-19, with experts expounding on the impossibility of social distancing in over-crowded housing, and the disconnect between advising the public to frequently wash their hands to prevent the spread of disease when contamination of water in high-risk, on-reserve treatment plants is common. For example, Wasagamack First Nation’s water treatment system reportedly went offline for a week in May, cutting off water supply completely to the health centre and community. The skills gap does not exist in a vacuum.

Despite the challenges presented by the underemployment of skilled Indigenous workers and by a lack of baseline essential skills, there are many bright spots on the horizon. Indigenous businesses are growing and creating employment, and self-employment and entrepreneurship are both increasing. Indigenous peoples are actively preparing for the future of work, but there are headwinds on the horizon.

Indigenous firms are major employers of Indigenous people. However, these firms are often in sectors that face disruption. Business operators cite unfavourable business climates on reserves, and would-be Indigenous entrepreneurs have cited difficulties accessing capital. Gaps in Indigenous education and skills training presents both a labour and business problem —Indigenous firms say finding capable staff is difficult, and growth is threatened if action is not taken to upskill prospective workers.

Recommendations and future research

Indigenous skills training programs need the following to reach their fullest potential: 1) an ability to support youth through earlier intervention and pre-employment training; 2) programming for youth and adults to upgrade essential skills before they reach pre-employment training; and 3) affordable, accessible childcare.

Other studies have shown that the likelihood of success increases when training is culturally appropriate and wrap-around supports are provided. Wrap-around supports refer to a wide array of initiatives that consider the learner as a whole person with responsibilities and demands outside of the classroom. These supports aim to eliminate barriers for learners. For example, education navigators can mentor and guide Indigenous students who are studying away from their home communities.

As many Indigenous businesses and people work in fields that face disruption through automation, it is critical to consider upskilling or reskilling programs that can identify and close existing labour market gaps.

Engaging Indigenous students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) early is imperative. Only 4.13 percent of the Indigenous labour force has post-secondary education in STEM compared with 10.36 percent of non-Indigenous Canadians. However, the difference in employment rates for those with a STEM background is small – 70.5 percent for Indigenous peoples compared with 72.6 percent for non-Indigenous peoples – showing the potential for Indigenous talent in STEM.

As automation changes the landscape, the federal government must hone its policies to meet the unique education and training needs of Indigenous peoples. Current federal skills and training programs are flawed: one independent study found that data was not collected on program success, rendering the most effective programs no more likely to be supported or renewed than the least.

We also need clarity on what labour market data is most useful to Indigenous business operators, policy-makers, and workers. Some studies say that Indigenous community organizers lack enough Indigenous labour market data to plan programs and services. Others reach opposite conclusions, citing a wealth of Aboriginal labour market information. Evidence-driven policy requires good data, and we recommend investment in understanding the nature of Indigenous labour market data gaps.

This article is part of Skills Next, a series of 14 reports by the Public Policy Forum, the Diversity Institute at Ryerson University and the Future Skills Centre. Skills Next seeks to identify the most important issues impacting the skills ecosystem in Canada, and build a strong foundation intended to help support further research and strengthen policy-making.

Photo: Bank buildings are photographed in Toronto’s financial district on June 27, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin