Pandemic recovery offers opportunity to get short-term skills training right

The rebuilding of the Canadian economy in the wake of the pandemic is an opportunity – even an obligation – to finally get short-term skills training right. And on a massive scale.

Governments of all stripes and jurisdictions have developed dozens, if not hundreds, of training programs over the years. It’s not that none of the plans worked. On a localized basis, or with a small group of individuals, people got trained and found jobs.

But none of these programs have been scaled up in a way that could truly move the needle on the dials that really matter: unemployment, underemployment and filling skills shortages.

The need for skills training has never been greater.

The pandemic offers the federal government a rare chance to build a rapid-response training program that addresses the needs of legions of Canadians whose careers have been disrupted by the lockdown.

Like some kind of science-fiction time warp, we’ve fast-forwarded through what would have been years of incremental change. Trends that were emerging are now staring us in the face.

Consider:

  • Careers are no longer linear. We’ve known that for some time, but the acceleration of automation and the overhaul of the service economy through the pandemic have created a critical need for mature learners to acquire new skills. The ability to quickly retrain and redeploy workers will be key to Canada’s success coming out of the other side of this unprecedented disruption.
  • Training has to be on-demand, meeting the learners where they are. Canada’s need for a more productive and resilient work force means helping people modernize their skills on an as-needed basis – literally 24/7. A successful training regime will identify the specific work-related skills of individuals who find themselves in transition and match them to appropriate retraining opportunities.
  • While the need for lifelong learning has long been known, little has been done to encourage mid-career Canadians to expand their skill sets to remain relevant. The complex interplay of motivation, navigation, time and money makes it challenging for older workers to return to classroom and lab-based learning. Participation is weakest among disadvantaged adults such as the low-skilled, unemployed or those in jobs with a high risk of automation. The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women, whose participation in the economic recovery is vital.Investments in employer-sponsored training remain low.

The way the current training system is designed and funded at the federal level won’t address these new realities.

While a welcome sign of the federal commitment to lifelong learning, the Canada Training Benefit (CTB) is virtually invisible to Canadians because it’s a refundable tax credit. Canadians must spend first, then claim the credit on their tax returns. Left unused, the benefit stands to grow over time, but there is currently no way for an individual to understand their account balance.

Further, employment insurance benefits are poorly suited to the kind of short-term training the CTB is meant to encourage. While Canadians could theoretically collect EI while in training, the service standard for receipt of benefits is 28 days,meaning most Canadians would not receive income support until after they returned to work.

Together, these elements put the financial onus of continuing education firmly on the shoulders of individuals. That needs to change.

Three changes can make the CTB, and the federal training regime, more responsive and provide the support so many Canadians desperately need.

First, the federal government should cover the direct costs of training by providing the first $500 as a tax-free training voucher. Canadians wouldn’t have to wait months to claim a tax credit. The government could provide a one-time boost for recipients of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

Second, the government should enhance the awareness and visibility of the CTB. An easy fix is to make the accumulated value of the benefit readily available and highly visible, perhaps through My Account on the Canada Revenue Agency portal.

Finally, the government should build a better real-time information and navigation hub to allow Canadians to know what skills are in demand and how to access short-cycle programs in their region. Vulnerable groups will be more likely to participate if they know where they can develop the skills that local employers need today.

Canada’s polytechnics stand ready to help. We’re a major pillar of the training infrastructure: collectively we offer nearly 17,000 short-cycle courses at an average cost of less than $500.

Polytechnics are already playing a significant role in helping Canadians sideswiped by the pandemic: industry-focused, drawing on expert faculty and countless courses in credentials ranging from apprenticeship programs to graduate certificates.

With a revamped CTB and more responsive training regime, we can do much, much more.

About the Author

David Agnew, President of Seneca College and Vice-Chair of Polytechnics Canada.

David Agnew became the fifth president of Seneca in July 2009 and is Vice-Chair of Polytechnics Canada. Under his leadership, Seneca has experienced record growth in enrolment and expanded its offerings in both undergraduate and graduate programs. One of the largest colleges in Canada, Seneca is growing its applied research, broadening international and corporate partnerships, investing in capital expansion and adopting an innovative academic direction to increase experiential, cross-disciplinary and flexible learning opportunities.