Canada’s economy will rely on workers gaining new skills or improving existing ones. Changes to the EI system and training benefits are key.

This fall’s speech from the throne made very clear that helping Canadians gain access to training will be critical to Canada’s post-pandemic recovery in the months and years ahead. The government went so far as to promise the “largest investment in Canadian history in training for workers.”

We couldn’t agree more that this is a top priority, but what does this upcoming investment need to look like to ensure that its effects will be felt quickly?

Many Canadians have lost their jobs over the past months, while those who remain employed have had to adjust to a completely different way of working. In times like these, the critical role of Canada’s post-secondary system – helping Canadians adapt and develop the skills they need – becomes more important than ever.

The job market was already evolving before the pandemic, with advances in technology threatening traditional employment and an aging population requiring that growth and services be maintained despite a smaller workforce. But COVID-19 has compounded all the challenges and disruption we were facing before, creating a new sense of urgency.

That is why we believe the government’s investment promise needs to support reskilling and upskilling to get Canadians back to work and address employers’ skills shortages.

Ideally, this would be achieved mostly through a renewed Employment Insurance program to increase access to training for unemployed, self-employed and gig workers; and through a redesigned Canada Training Benefit (CTB). This program was introduced to encourage Canadians to put money aside and help them cover the costs of training fees to keep their skills up to date. While the CTB showed promise when it was announced in the last federal budget, its effects were never going to be felt immediately as it required people to save over several years to really benefit.

As the federal government transitions away from providing Canadians with emergency income support, its attention must turn towards the EI program. The program should provide the right balance of employment support measures, and active support measures such as training and employment services. These active support measures address both the needs of the unemployed as well as those of self-employed and gig economy workers.

For workers who are employed but require reskilling and upskilling, the federal government should redesign the CTB to make it a more nimble and responsive training allowance. Since the 2019 announcement of the CTB, Colleagues and Institutes Canada and other national organizations have expressed concerns about its design. An annual credit of $250 is insufficient to motivate individuals to pursue training.

The CTB’s reliance on the Employment Insurance (EI) program to support up to four weeks of income support during training is also viewed as an impediment for those who are employed but require retraining, since it will only cover 55 per cent of their average weekly earnings. For many, transitioning to EI while on training will result in a significant decline in income, thus making it less attractive. The role of employers is also unclear in terms of how they would identify training needs and release employees to pursue training via the CTB.

As the federal government reviews these programs, it shouldn’t miss the opportunity to contribute to a sustainable recovery by supporting the development of green skills modules for technical and trades training. These modules, such as Lethbridge College’s wind turbine technician program, would support climate change adaptation and mitigation in key industries. Any additional funding for training should focus on these types of learning opportunities, which will support Canada’s transition to a greener economy and can help the country progress towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. These programs also help laid-off oil and gas workers put their skills to work in this area of high demand.

All upskilling and reskilling allowances, whether they are offered under the Canadian Training Benefit, Employment insurance, or any other training program, should cover the costs of assessing a worker’s existing skills (known as training and prior learning assessment and recognition or PLAR). This can help learners save time and money by granting them credit for competencies they already have. It is already common practice at colleges and institutes, 95 per cent of which offer PLAR. However, these services usually represent additional costs for learners as they are not covered by tuition and often fall outside the scope of financial aid, bursaries or learning allowances. Making them more accessible would go a long way in supporting a quick return to the labour market for newly upskilled Canadians.

COVID-19 has also forced us all to rethink education delivery by making online learning the new normal, at least for the time being. The efforts of colleges and institutes have been nothing short of miraculous, transitioning tens of thousands of courses online, including some experiential and work-integrated learning opportunities. And yet, the current crisis has also exposed significant gaps.

Access to broadband internet remains uneven across the country and security concerns are still a challenge for both institutions and students. Upgrading Canada’s digital infrastructure should be a cornerstone of any stimulus package and should recognize the particular needs of colleges and institutes serving students in many rural and remote communities, which we value at about $1.4 billion across the entire college sector. To effectively address the skills and training needs of Canadians, our post-secondary system must be supported by the digital infrastructure for anytime/anywhere learning – high-quality, interactive, synchronous and asynchronous participation by learners, faculty and staff.

Recent initiatives such as the Universal Broadband Fund, Canada’s Connectivity Strategy and the Canada Infrastructure Bank’s Growth Plan are a great start. The growth plan was announced in early October and sets aside $2 billion to connect approximately 750,000 homes and small businesses to broadband in underserved communities. A concerted effort will be needed to make sure these measures reach the most vulnerable learners in rural and remote communities. Ensuring everyone can participate in online learning is not just a matter of fairness, but will ensure that efforts to support the economic recovery will have the desired impact all across the country.

Indigenous communities across Canada in particular need improved access to broadband so that Indigenous learners may benefit from the digital learning options that colleges and institutes have launched. Inclusive economic growth relies precisely on making sure that all Canadians have access to culturally and community-relevant skills.

Every day, Canadians count on one of the best post-secondary systems in the world, supported by a strong network of colleges and institutes that deliver accessible and responsive programs to meet the needs of learners, employers, and their communities.

With over 95 per cent of Canadians living within 50 kilometres of a college or institute, leveraging this network as a key partner in economic recovery will go a long way to ensuring future investments reach Canadians where they are, with programs that can help them get back to work quickly and prepare for the future, whatever it may hold.

Photo: People wearing face masks cross a street in Toronto, Canada, on Oct. 23, 2020. Zou Zheng/Xinhua via ZUMA Press