The future of work is now: All must have the opportunity to participate

By: Michael Burt, Pedro Barata

This op-ed by Michael Burt and Pedro Barata was originally published in iPoltics on January 28, 2022.

Workplaces today look different than they did pre-pandemic, and although leaders were already anticipating the future of work, conversations around skills, labour markets, and mobility have quickly advanced.

Canada achieved an important milestone in September, with employment returning to its pre-pandemic peak. However, with the arrival of the Omicron variant, we anticipate a longer runway to recovery, which continues to be uneven, with many groups not fully participating. Addressing these inequities will require a multi-faceted approach so that everyone can share in the country’s prosperity. In our conversations with over 1,300 people in Canada’s skills ecosystem over the past two years, solutions identified have included investments in physical and social infrastructure, focused training on the right skills, and enhancements to our education system.

Inequities across social groups were an issue before the pandemic, but youth, Indigenous peoples, women, and newcomers were all disproportionately affected by COVID-19. This was true both in terms of the impact on their employment and earnings, and on access to support services. For example, racialized women are more likely to work in long-term care, retail and food processing jobs, often using public transit to get around, which puts them at greater risk of exposure to the virus. Meanwhile, limited Internet access for many households made it more difficult to access school, work, and services.

One part of the solution is prioritizing investment in social infrastructure. For example, mentorship programs can help young people as they enter the workforce. For example, in Newfoundland and Labrador, a planned program aims to pair retired mentors with students who experienced learning gaps during the pandemic. The goal is to have mentors provide international students with academic support as well as help them to establish important connections with others in their community. Mentorship programs can also be particularly impactful in helping newcomers overcome cultural barriers such as a lack of Canadian experience or language challenges. This is seen in action through Atlantic Canada’s Opportunities Agency’s ‘Study and Stay’ pilot program, focusing on the retention of international students, supporting them in the transition from education to employment, as well as providing them with mentorship opportunities, immigration and employment resources, and a group support system. As well, much-needed supports like reliable and affordable childcare, flexible work environments, and more robust health and safety practices, will foster more widespread workforce participation.

Another part of the solution requires investments in digital infrastructure. These would include providing equitable access to electronic devices and adequate broadband, as well as ensuring users have the digital literacy skills to use them effectively. While the digital divide is most pronounced in rural and Northern regions, access is not universal in urban areas either. Establishing reliable broadband connections is the first step to ensuring that all Canadians have equitable access to education and employment opportunities in the shift to a digital economy.

Furthermore, to benefit from digital infrastructure, Canadians need to have the right skills. Employers cite digital literacy and social-emotional skills like resilience, self-management, and communication as the most common and critical skill sets for the future. The pandemic accelerated the transition to digital spaces, requiring many more workers to improve their understanding of what technologies are available, as well as how, when and why to use them. Although access to consistent broadband service and digital devices is crucial, employees must also possess the skills to use those tools to find, organize, analyze, and create information.

Developing and maintaining these skills will require a continuous learning mindset among educators, workers and employers. For those in school, increasing access to experiential learning opportunities for all students, regardless of their background, is a critical way to start this journey. After completing formal education, flexible learning options will be vital for mid-career workers. These include expanded opportunities for virtual learning and the development and recognition of micro-credential programs.

Workplaces today look different than they did pre-pandemic, and although leaders were already anticipating the future of work, conversations around skills, labour markets, and mobility have quickly advanced. The acceleration of remote work, digitization, technology adoption, and automation, means that in many ways, the future is now. Ensuring that all Canadians have the opportunity to partake in this future is more than an admirable goal – it is a necessity if we are to achieve our full potential.