The COVID-19 crisis has derailed the careers of millions of Canadians. To support them, workforce leaders, and policy and decision makers need to mobilize education and training systems in some key ways – starting with robust labour market information and laying the foundation for a national system of lifelong learning.

Three months into the COVID-19 crisis, it was clear the restaurant you worked at was not reopening. You were unemployed, a job seeker alongside tens of thousands of other servers. Anxious and worried about paying your rent, you were also excited to find your next career. You reached out to a local employment service organization, but its online services were poor, and you didn’t have the skills or experience to apply for the jobs they referred you to. When you were eventually referred to a career developer, that service relied on pre-pandemic job market information. You were frustrated, but nevertheless followed their advice and spoke to admissions at a nearby university. They recommended a four-year degree program, but it wasn’t clear what job would exist in your local economy once you graduated. And how were you supposed to pay tuition and living costs?

The scale of pandemic-induced disruption to Canada’s economy and labour market is unprecedented. At peak economic shutdown in April 2020, 5.5 million Canadian workers had lost their jobs or were working fewer than half their usual hours. Many more people experienced full or substantial income loss, reflected in the stunning 8.4 million applications for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). Analysts predict a second wave of layoffs as businesses adjust to a prolonged economic contraction.

Fewer than half the jobs lost in the early phase of this crisis will be restored within the first year, according to Jim Stanford, in his Public Policy Forum (PPF) paper on work after COVID-19. He expects elevated unemployment for years to come. The employment losses and hardship have been heavily concentrated among low-wage, part-time and precarious workers, women, youth and younger workers, immigrants, and hard-hit sectors like retail, hospitality and tourism. Many of these jobs will never come back. Many others will be profoundly changed.

Stanford puts it starkly: “Handled badly, this could easily turn into a decade-long depression.”

With most of the country reopened in August 2020, 1.1 million fewer workers were employed than before the pandemic hit, with a further 700,000 workers still experiencing substantial loss in hours. The increase in numbers of job searchers is almost twice what it was during the 2008–2009 recession. These workers will continue to require urgent and large-scale assistance, including employment insurance (EI) and the newly announced EI temporary benefit programs, social supports from mental health to housing assistance, and back-to-work schemes like the emergency wage subsidy (also explored in the Rebuild Canada series).

Beyond unemployment and safety net assistance, these workers require an unprecedented mobilization of education and training to prepare them for rapid re-employment. This is an historic level of demand, which our higher education and workforce-development systems are not currently equipped to meet. It also adds to and accelerates a pre-COVID trend: increasing calls for lifelong learning as a way for workers and employers to adapt to rapidly shifting labour markets. For working-age Canadians, ongoing education, retraining and capacity building is becoming a necessity to stay relevant and succeed in the job market through their careers. For the country, a pivot to models of lifelong learning for all Canadians is an opportunity to transform the workforce quickly and boost competitiveness.

Meeting these twin challenges of rapid re-employment and lifelong learning will be an enormous test for policy-makers, and for Canada’s systems of higher education and workforce development. This paper, building on a previous article for PPF and First Policy Response (a project of the Ryerson Leadership Lab), presents a set of prescriptions to federal and provincial/territorial governments, and the leaders of Canada’s post-secondary and employment systems. It echoes that initial paper’s premise that we have a window during which we can help those forced out of their jobs, and also right longstanding structural inequalities by building a lifelong-learning system that knits together our higher education and workforce-development systems.

The policy proposals in this paper focus first and foremost on supporting people. They concentrate on the learners and workers most affected by the pandemic crisis who require education and training to enter or return to work – particularly those Canadians who face extra barriers to the job market. Research from across the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development shows that low-skilled adults who most require training to find or keep a job are least likely to access that training. The proposals, however, must largely be executed by the systems of higher education and workforce development in Canada, which have strengths, but are also highly fragmented, siloed and lagging. They urgently need realignment and coordination to properly support Canadians in navigating their career pathways.

Human capital development has never been more important than it is today to collective prosperity and social inclusion, especially in advanced economies like Canada’s. While post-secondary education has multiple missions and many strengths, governments and industry have for decades urged greater alignment and collaboration with workforce-development organizations and employers to address labour force needs and ensure graduates have appropriate skills and meaningful careers. The COVID-19 pandemic has created a cataclysm in the labour market, but also opens a policy and funding window to develop new solutions and bring the higher education and workforce-development systems together. Rapid advances in technology, labour market analysis, research and policy-making offer further promise.

In this paper, we suggest that the rapid re-employment of Canadians be built on four pillars:

  1. Develop labour market intelligence to support demand-driven rapid re-employment interventions
  2. Invest in and spur the creation of rapid response programs for re-employment
  3. Increase financial support to working-age learners to ensure access to employment and training
  4. Increase support for employment and career development services geared to workers experiencing pre-existing and pandemic-related barriers

The pillars, focused on education, training and workforce development, complement other measures aimed at shoring up income security, business recovery and employment standards. The following sections explore these four pillars and provide specific prescriptions under each.

The quality and availability of data on skills and jobs – commonly referred to as labour market information (LMI) – has dramatically increased as a result of, and in response to, technological change and the increased complexity of our economies and workforce. New sources like Emsi, Burning Glass, and LinkedIn – which compile and analyze job postings with digital representations of job seeker skills, interests and demographics – are being combined with traditional government sources like the Labour Force Survey to produce a faster, multidimensional image of the labour market. Innovative efforts led by academic Ross Finnie to link tax and labour market outcome data have produced new insights about the success of post-secondary graduates. The recently launched Labour Market Information Council has begun to combine private and public datasets to evaluate skills gaps. Start-ups, non-profits and think tanks have developed learning pathway tools that can plot transitions from one role (e.g. customer service) and industry (retail) to another career (enterprise sales).

Yet, the adoption and use of these increasingly refined LMI resources has lagged among Canada’s workforce-development and higher education systems. In workforce development, a lack of resources and digital fluency have often hampered the use of such tools. Faculty and institutional complacency and recalcitrance has held back higher education. Canadian polytechnics, through their work-integrated learning and research collaboration with industry, are perhaps the most labour market-responsive public institutions. Still, they trail far more agile private career colleges such as technology bootcamps and global online learning providers in applying LMI and learner analytics to tailor programs and curriculum, or improve post-program outcomes.

The current workforce crisis and its rapid onset makes the smart use of real-time LMI data all the more important. With a bold expansion of “rapid response” education and training urgently needed, policy-makers, higher education institutions, workforce developers and employers must have access to timely, accurate and relevant data and intelligence about employment and skills demand across the country. As other influential voices are arguing, LMI is the foundation of the demand-driven workforce system Canada needs now.

Prescription: Rapidly build and deploy LMI tools to anchor a rapid-response retraining and re-employment agenda.

  • Mandate and fund leading players in the LMI field to quickly agree upon a national LMI methodology and dataset for crisis recovery, and rapidly roll out a set of tools for use by higher education, career and employment service providers and the private sector. Leading bodies such as the Labour Market Information Council, Statistics Canada, industry and educator associations, think tanks and the sector councils could be engaged to lead this work. In addition to rapidly developing data architecture and collection methods, these bodies could introduce tools such as open-application programming interfaces, LMI dashboards, and learning and career pathway navigators. These could be built using off-the-shelf technologies where possible. LMI resources should be open (not proprietary), user-friendly (for a variety of audiences), real-time (completed within a month), granular (sufficiently localized) and drawn from many sources.
  • Equip career counselors, developers and navigators – key actors in the workforce-development system – with the skills to use these LMI resources. The rollout of LMI crisis response tools should be accompanied by extensive training and support for workforce-development practitioners. They require digital and statistical fluency to navigate LMI and online career software, and ongoing learning in relevant fields such as behavioral economics and pedagogy. (See more in section 4 on a technology endowment for practitioners).
  • Accelerate the shift of government funding towards outcomes-based models built, among other things, on high-quality LMI. British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario’s higher education and workforce-development systems are shifting towards outcomes-based funding, including labour market and employment related measures. Through the post-pandemic rebuild, provincial and territorial governments can accelerate these efforts. Funding should be shifted to reorient systems so they can rapidly and regularly retarget pay-for-performance towards encouraging graduates into career pathways. This will help fill workforce needs and other important learner and system outcomes.

With millions of Canadian workers unemployed and potentially facing job and career changes, supporting rapid re-employment will be a centerpiece in any federal or provincial stimulus plan for recovery. Like many other countries, Canada has introduced a substantial emergency wage subsidy program to help businesses retain and rehire workers. Other countries, however, have taken bolder steps with education and training. As one example, Australia rolled out a suite of heavily discounted, six-month online courses geared to workforce areas of “national priority” such as nursing, teaching, counselling and IT. These will help workers either gain new skills for their current jobs or transition to new careers.

Rapid response employment service programs that help job-threatened or laid-off workers plan for their transition are an immediately available employment and training systems solution. Triggered following a major business closure at a sectoral or regional scale, these programs create response teams to support large numbers of displaced workers. Delivered and funded provincially, the teams communicate with workers, employers and the community, and develop action plans that apply local LMI and engage local workforce agencies, and education and training providers. Examples include Ontario’s Dedicated Training and Employment Services Action Centre, which the province set up in response to the GM plant closure in Oshawa, and the Canada-Saskatchewan Rapid Response Teams.

To then equip these workers, new, demand-driven, short-cycle education and training programs must be fast-tracked to fill the talent and skills needs of employers in their communities and across the country. As our previous paper spelled out, these programs should be collaboratively developed education-industry partnerships that identify and communicate employer-relevant skills and competencies, including online and work-integrated learning, and that offer career clarity and employer networks for learners. Many programs of this type have emerged already. George Brown College in Toronto has launched an online micro-credential program in service robotics, co-developed with robotics solutions provider Global DWS. Software development bootcamps are another example of this immersive style of short training programs. Yet, while industry has long lamented the time it takes to develop new curriculum and training to meet emerging needs, this type of industry-partnered, rapidly incubated skills development remains rare outside continuing education schools.

Rapid response project for tourism and hospitality workers

In response to the labour disruption of the COVID-19 crisis, the Future Skills Centre and OTEC, a not-for-profit training and workforce-development organization for the tourism and hospitality industry, have launched a rapid response to support hundreds of thousands of laid-off workers in that hard-hit sector. Funded through a $2.25 million investment with a number of industry partners, the project aims to equip displaced workers with new skills for changing jobs. It offers them immediate services and information, maps their skills and assets, and identifies real-time approaches to train them for re-employment.

While these proposals could be supported through stimulus funding, governments can also leverage existing resources for higher education and skills development. The Labour Market Transfer Agreements, the major sources of funding to provincial and territorial workforce systems, offer flexibility for redirecting workforce-development funds. Intermediaries also support these types of initiatives. With provincial funding, eCampus Ontario has incubated education-industry partnerships to create micro-certification programs for skills in high demand. With a national mandate, the Future Skills Centre recently announced $37 million of investments in 30 community-based pilot programs to support people moving to new jobs or industries (see text box above). The federal College and Community COVID-19 Innovation Program could be leveraged for workforce innovation, where applicants could grow and scale labour market attachment and mobilization efforts in partnership with employment service providers. Beyond funding, these initiatives must be informed by timely, localized and sector-specific LMI, and will demand new approaches to collaboration and co-design among higher education institutions, workforce-development service providers, employers and governments.

Prescription: Establish re-employment programs that rapidly respond to displaced workers and fast-track new, demand-driven education and training opportunities.

  • Expand rapid re-employment planning and training services. Through provincial employment and training systems – funded under the Workforce Development Agreements stream of the Labour Market Transfer Agreements – response teams and action centre models can be introduced to address labour market disruption hot spots at a local or regional scale, or within specific, hard-hit industry sectors.
  • Mobilize the rapid design and launch of demand-driven education and training programs for displaced workers. Through provincial and territorial governments and existing intermediaries, introduce catalyst funding grants to fast-track the development of education and training programs geared to re-employment. Grants would be open to higher education institutions, employment service providers, and union-based and private sector applicants. Proposals would have to demonstrate clear and localized labour market demand, flexible program models geared to adult learners, and partnership with employers or industry coalitions. The partnerships would foster co-design of curriculum, validation of micro-credentials and direct pipelines for learners to in-demand jobs and recovering sectors of the economy.

To enable rapid incubation and launch, provincial program review processes should be temporarily streamlined or suspended. Program design can build upon existing resources and precedents, including the Micro-certifications Principles and Framework. In addition to new programs, investments can support the rapid replication and scaling of proven training and workforce-development models, such as NPower Canada in-demand technology skills training for marginalized young people. To the extent possible, and reflecting evolving public health guidance, programs should incorporate widely accepted pedagogical practices, such as those outlined in our earlier PPF paper.

Even with the introduction of new demand driven, rapid response education and training offerings, access and inclusion will remain a challenge. Many Canadians have lost significant income, relied on emergency government benefits, or experienced increased uncertainty and precariousness of their household finances; they simply cannot afford to divert resources from the day-to-day costs of living to retraining and lifelong learning. This is especially the case for working-age learners, low-income learners and others facing barriers – all disproportionately displaced from work by the pandemic crisis. Most will require financial assistance to pay for education and training so they can participate in an equitable recovery.

The federal government’s recent introduction of the Canada Training Benefit (CTB) provides an immediate opportunity. It aims to make it easier for working-age people to access training and skills-development opportunities in a rapidly evolving job market. The benefit takes the form of a $250 refundable tax credit, accumulated each year with unused credit carrying over, to a total lifetime credit of $5,000. The accumulated credit can cover up to half of the total costs of a given program.

About the Canada Training Benefit

This new benefit is available to working Canadians aged 25 to 64, who earn between $10,000 and $150,000 per year. Individuals pay up-front for training fees at recognized colleges, universities, and certified private vocational schools and career or trade colleges, receiving the credit through tax filing for that year. To take the time away from work for training, the credit is also paired with an Employment Insurance (EI) training support that provides up to four weeks of paid leave, at 55 percent of average weekly earnings, every four years. Canadians can accrue their first $250 credit in 2020, but the COVID-19 crisis has resulted in a delay in introducing the EI training benefits.

Unfortunately, in its current form the CTB will not adequately and effectively help these learners. We see three major flaws. First, the benefit simply isn’t generous enough, with continuing education courses, post-secondary tuition and private training programs ranging in cost from hundreds to many thousands of dollars. Second, the tax credit model, which will refund the benefit amount after tax filing the following year, does not address the up-front cash flow barrier for many people. This is one reason governments have been eliminating post-secondary tuition and education tax credits. Third, the CTB doesn’t target support to those who really need it. With highly skilled and paid workers more likely to participate in workplace learning and ongoing education, the CTB, as constituted, could primarily benefit those who need it least. Finally, as the Employment Insurance (EI) paid leave provision takes effect, the alignment of provincial labour laws and employer buy-in will be critical success factors.

Prescription: Substantially enhance and redesign the new Canada Training Benefit.

The CTB should become the flagship financial assistance program for working-age education, skills development and lifelong learning. In enhancing the CTB, policy-makers should apply these design principles:

  • Increase the amounts. To truly position Canada as a world leader in supporting working-age learners, the benefit requires enrichment. We propose quadrupling the credit to $1,000 annually and $20,000 lifetime as a starting point.
  • Target the benefits to those most in need. As with other financial aid programs for learners – such as federal-provincial student grants and loans, and the Canada Education Savings Program (CESP) matching contributions to RESPs – benefit levels should be income-tested or enhanced for low-income households. A targeted CTB could take various forms: a gradual phase-out of the $1,000 annual benefit for people earning more than the $38,000 EI threshold; or, as with CESP, an enhancement for those below low-income thresholds, perhaps by reducing or eliminating the 50 percent cost-matching requirement.
  • Provide people with the ability to receive the benefit up front. To address the cash flow challenge, the benefit could be made available through an application-based model on a trust-but-verify basis, similar to CERB and the new temporary EI benefits, with funds disbursed quickly and reconciled at tax time the following year. More ambitious would be a healthcare spending account model like those used by private insurance providers, or a direct payment model to eligible education and training providers who would directly apply the benefit amount to tuition and fees.
  • Ensure alignment with student financial aid, workforce programs and provincial labour laws. While the CTB is an important innovation to support working-age learners, it will add complexity for beneficiaries who are also eligible for student financial aid programs, for supports through the provincial and territorial employment and training systems, and employment standards laws for paid leave. Governments should ensure the CTB interactions do not have perverse impacts, and that it is clear to beneficiaries how these benefits can be stacked.
  • Give the program a better name and substantial promotion. As recent reforms to student aid in Ontario and longer-term campaigns to elevate the trades in Switzerland have both demonstrated, deliberate efforts at building brand, awareness and behavioral response for these programs is essential in encouraging uptake.
  • Emergency measures are needed for workers displaced by COVID-19. While these principles are geared to establishing an effective, durable benefit over the long-term, policy-makers can also leverage the CTB immediately. On an emergency, time-limited basis, the cost-matching requirement could be eliminated for CERB recipients and those transitioning to EI or the three new temporary EI benefit programs.

Ottawa estimated the CTB’s cost at $1.7 billion over five years, based on 600,000 recipients. Expansion of the benefit, and an expected increase in demand among displaced workers, will substantially increase that fiscal impact. In the short run, the emergency expansion of the CTB should be funded as part of an economic recovery stimulus package. Over the longer term, an income-tested redesign to better target the benefit could help mitigate costs. The government could also explore other offset options, such as limiting access to the post-secondary tuition tax credit to those under 25 years of age.

A devastating reality of the COVID crisis is that the harshest impacts have been on populations already most economically vulnerable, and facing the most significant barriers in the labour market. Beyond simply requiring access to education and training, many working-age Canadians (often including workers in lower-skill and more precarious roles, such as Black and Indigenous people, and people of colour, social assistance recipients, or youth and younger workers entering the workforce) will require a broader suite of employment, career development and social services to find meaningful employment and remain attached to the labour market. The Public Policy Forum’s Skills Next series of reports outlines the skills development challenges for racialized groups and immigrants, and persons with disabilities.

While individualized supports targeted to the most vulnerable populations should be the core of crisis response through an effective workforce-development system, the pandemic has exposed the significant limitations of existing systems – notably a lack of agility in anticipating and responding to crises and opportunities while sustaining core support services. The system’s core practitioners – including employment counsellors, career advisers, employer liaisons and job developers – often lack adequate training, technology and pay, amongst other supports, while struggling to coordinate with the social services that are determinants of career success for their clients.

Workforce and employment services must move beyond the focus on short-term labour market attachment to a more integrative and longer-term focus on career development. This will be particularly critical during the post-pandemic rebuild, as unemployment and economic turmoil could be persistent. As higher education is in the early stages of unbundling its offerings into elements such as curriculum design, instruction, assessment and student services, workforce development could similarly be broken into its component parts. It could shift away from job search and resumé building to focus on the provision of longer-term career pathways and navigation, and complementary or wraparound social services.

The findings of the Expert Panel on Youth Employment offer useful guidance on client needs and service design, unpacking the major barriers, and recommending targeted investment in the most vulnerable. Other research highlights the importance of a regional labour market lens, of sector and region-specific partnerships with multiple employers, and of wraparound supports – including counselling, housing and childcare – for individuals with the greatest barriers to employment. Employer engagement around recruitment pipelines is also critical. Innovative programs such as CivicAction’s HireNext provide guidance on the changes to human resources practices that would more effectively hire, retain and create employment pathways for vulnerable youth.

Prescription: Enhance the capacity of workforce-development providers to offer employment and career services to Canadians – in particular, those facing the greatest barriers.

  • Expand support for workforce-development practitioners. These essential actors at the core of the service-delivery model are often under-paid and under-supported. Provincial and territorial governments, working with service-delivery partners, should prioritize resources for career development practitioners by expanding the scope of their roles and offering training and capacity building around career pathways design and navigation, and by offering coaching and transitional supports to the most vulnerable clients. These wraparound social supports, delivered directly or via partners, could include elements of personal professional development (coaching sessions), self-care (extended healthcare benefits, counselling/therapy), and shoring up of external supports (childcare, transportation, food security).
  • Invest in the sector’s digital capacity and infrastructure by establishing a technology endowment for workforce-development practitioners and clients. Like a Millennium Foundation endowment for a new generation, the investment would support technology transition and digital inclusion in the workforce system over the coming years. Such an endowment could be administered by Employment and Social Development Canada, provincial and territorial training ministries, and sector intermediaries. Working with sector leaders, post-secondary institutions and education technology providers, baseline standards for technological capabilities would be established (i.e. for hardware, software, maintenance, training) based on digital-by-design principles. Using a needs-based application model, the endowment would provide grant funding so that community service providers and grassroots organizations could upgrade to the appropriate standards (with investments on the scale of $50,000). Service providers could also apply to secure devices (laptops, smartphones) for financially barriered job seekers to ensure they can engage in the digital economy and access services and training.

Lifelong learning as part of a new deal for Canadian workers

This paper focuses on how Canada can use the higher education and workforce-development systems as part of the solution to one of the greatest challenges Canada has faced in a generation: how to provide rapid supports and re-employment training for millions of newly unemployed and disrupted Canadians.

Over the longer-term, the initiatives this paper proposes will also help lay the foundation for a system of lifelong learning in Canada. They offer the ingredients – timely, accessible job and career information; demand-driven, flexible education and training; targeted financial assistance to adult learners; and career coaching and social supports – that working-age Canadians need to navigate a labour market that will require them to be increasingly adaptable to changing skills requirements, technologies and work environments.

We hope a broad New Deal for Canadian workers coming out of the COVID-19 crisis can include access to lifelong learning, robust income security architecture, upgrades to employment standards and accessible child care, among other things. Human capital is Canada’s most valuable resource, and our collective prosperity requires that we do more to effectively use it. Achieving a more equitable prosperity through rebuild, however, demands something extra: a collective commitment that all workers have the opportunity to chart their own career paths, find meaning in their work, receive income and benefits that allow a reasonable standard of living, and be treated with the respect and dignity in work they deserve.

Private Sector Partners: Manulife & Shopify

Consulting Partner: Deloitte

Federal Government Partner: Government of Canada

Provincial Government Partners:

British Columbia, SaskatchewanOntario & Quebec

Research Partners: National Research Council Canada & Future Skills Centre

Foundation Partners: Metcalf Foundation 

PPF would like to acknowledge that the views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the project’s partners.