(This article has been translated from French.)
In Quebec, as in other parts of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the layoff of thousands of workers for an indefinite period of time. In the space of two months – from February to April 2020 – the unemployment rate in Quebec has increased from 5 to 17 percent, and could even exceed 20 percent this summer, an increase never before seen in the history of the province.
To take advantage of this period of involuntary work stoppage, the Government of Quebec hastily launched, on April 6, the Programme actions concertées pour le maintien en emploi (PACME) to help workers develop their skills. Such a program in times of high unemployment has many advantages, but also blind spots that must be looked into.
The PACME training program
Since the start of the pandemic, several government programs, both federal and provincial, have been implemented to support the workforce and businesses that make up the economic fabric of our society. PACME’s objective is to get workers to participate in training activities so that they acquire skills related to current and future jobs, so that businesses are better prepared for economic recovery. Companies that adapt to new working conditions by cutting costs, finding new ways of working and training their workforce can increase their productivity to cope better with the current crisis. PACME reimburses 100 percent of training expenses of $100,000 or less, including training costs and employee salaries up to an hourly rate of $25, and 50 percent of training expenses of $100,000 to $500,000.
PACME is aimed at companies and “collective promoters.” These are semi-public institutions – sectoral workforce committees, regional councils and social committees made up of a range of actors (employers, unions, education community, for example) – dedicated to the development of the workforce. They are largely funded by the Government of Quebec. The flagship institution of this ecosystem is the Commission des partenaires du marché du travail, which finances 50 percent of PACME through the Workforce Skills Development and Recognition Fund, to which employers contribute. The Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Solidarity funds the other half of the program. Collective promoters can design and deliver their own training, but in general they connect companies and training providers.
The main training activities eligible for PACME are basic worker training, francization, digital skills and continuing training related to the activities of the company, whether or not directly related to the position occupied by the employee. In the context of the COVID-19 crisis, the training methods will have to comply with public health guidelines.
Training projects will be accepted until September 30, 2020 or until the $100 million budget is exhausted. The duration of projects can vary from a few days to a few months, depending on the needs established.
We must applaud the speed with which the Government of Quebec has implemented such a skills development program in the midst of economic and social upheaval. PACME benefits from the elimination of an important barrier to participation in training activities, namely the lack of time. Indeed, research in this area has shown that lack of time contributes to the low participation rate of workers in training activities. It has been 10 years since business leaders said that they were unable to offer their employees free time for training activities due to the amount of work.
We must applaud the flexibility shown by the Government of Quebec in establishing a provincial skills development program that is complementary to the new federal programs, notably the Emergency Wage Subsidy and the Canadian Emergency Benefit.
In addition, we must applaud the flexibility shown by the Government of Quebec in establishing a provincial skills development program that is complementary to the new federal programs, notably the Emergency Wage Subsidy and the Canadian Emergency Benefit. In my research on public skills development policies, the complementarity of government programs indeed appears to be a factor of success and efficiency. It increases resources and accommodates more participants in training activities. In the case of PACME, it eliminates one of the most important obstacles to participation in training activities: their cost. Since workers’ wages are eligible for federal Emergency Wage Subsidy and training costs are eligible for PACME, businesses and workers will be further encouraged to participate in training activities.
Finally, given that the health crisis will last for several more months, we can expect PACME to have an accelerating effect on the development of the online training offer, which was already arousing growing interest within companies.
PACME is aimed at employers and targets workers who have maintained their employment relationship, but neglects those who are unemployed. However, employers can request PACME training for employees they have laid off, as a number of those who have lost their employment relationship with their employer could potentially be called back to work. This is where the collective promoters mentioned above could act as intermediaries between unemployed workers and training providers by providing training to this category of unemployed workers. A conclusive experiment was carried out in the pharmacy sector a few years ago. PACME would thus play an even more important role among the thousands of workers who have lost their jobs.
The impact of the current crisis on employment varies from one sector of economic activity to another, as well as according to the size of the company and the skill level of the workforce. However, PACME makes no distinction between applicants. The program will be in effect until September 30 or until its $100 million budget is exhausted. In other words, it operates on a first-come-first-served basis.
Studies have shown that the sectors of economic activity where workers participate most in training activities are those on the cutting edge of technology as well as the highly unionized manufacturing sector. They also reveal that small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and low-skilled workers are less likely to be involved in training. However, we know that the current crisis is hitting the local services’ sector – for example, the tourism industry, restaurant industry and retail sector – which is mainly composed of SMEs and whose workers are generally low-skilled and have low salaries. It is therefore, paradoxically, these SMEs and these workers that are less likely to participate in PACME, even if unemployment remains high and jobs are difficult to find in this sector.
It is therefore, paradoxically, these SMEs and these workers that are less likely to participate in PACME.
Prioritizing the development of skills in certain sectors of economic activity, depending on the size of the companies and the skill level of the workforce, would be beneficial not only for those working in these sectors, but also for all of Quebec society. The industries hardest hit by the crisis, the less productive firms and the low-skilled workers who have low wages could benefit greatly from a program aimed at increasing their productivity and wealth, and thus benefit the whole community.
Finally, the duration of the PACME, scheduled until September 30, 2020, seems too short given the uncertainty surrounding the date of the return to economic normalcy. A vaccine against COVID-19 is not expected to be available before 2021. This means that the economy could be slowed for several more months. The government should consider extending PACME to December 31, 2020 and increasing its budget accordingly to allow more SMEs and low-skilled workers, especially the most vulnerable, to benefit from it. An extension could also be beneficial for workplaces where training cannot be provided remotely. When public health measures are lifted, they will then access training in workplaces and thus benefit from the program.
PACME is an historic opportunity to raise the level of skills in several sectors of activity. It should be ensured that SMEs and low-skilled workers who have participated less in training activities until now because of costs and lack of time can primarily benefit. PACME eliminates certain obstacles to training; it will have a significant impact if it can make SMEs and the low-skilled workforce more productive so that they can more vigorously engage in post-pandemic recovery.
This article is part of The Coronavirus Pandemic: Canada’s Response special feature.