Partnership beyond trade: A North American workforce development agenda

Amid a flurry of activity focused on COVID-19, Canada passed legislation to implement the new North American Free Trade Agreement in mid-March. The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement has now been ratified in all three countries. NAFTA was initially implemented in 1994 and has led to economic integration across the continent, with trilateral trade now worth approximately $1 trillion annually.

In the same way that such agreements boost trade and economic opportunity, potential exists for broader partnership to address challenges that all three countries face related to skills development, labour market mobility and skills mismatches. Across North America, employers report a conundrum best summarized by Rick Miner as “people without jobs and jobs without people.” According to Manpower’s 2018 Talent Shortage Survey, employers face barriers when it comes to finding candidates with the necessary skills and experience to fill vacant positions. This has become one of the most significant economic challenges of our time and, as a result, represents a continental opportunity for collaboration.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Earl Anthony Wayne has taken the first step toward coordinated action and, with support from the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, has been working with partners across the continent to identify viable solutions. In partnership with large employers, government officials and leaders in the non-profit and education sectors, Ambassador Wayne opened a cross-continental dialogue outlined in a 2019 report, North America 2.0: A Workforce Development Agenda. The paper lays out an ambitious exercise in partnership, requiring not only the collaboration of employers, government officials and educators, but necessitating this collaboration occur across three countries.

The paper suggests the following are areas of priority engagement:

  1. Apprenticeship and work-based learning
  2. Credentials
  3. Labour market data
  4. Best practices related to the “future of work”

Within these priorities, there is a significant role for educators and institutions. While, as a country, Canada is well-positioned to share best practices related to apprenticeship harmonization, polytechnics are the largest providers of apprentice technical training. The applied nature of polytechnic education and intense focus on work-integrated learning position institutions as leaders and experts in this area. Further, many of Canada’s polytechnics are leaders in alternative credential delivery, including the use of digital credentials and micro-certifications. As hubs of expertise for assisting small- and mid-sized enterprises – be it through applied research or the delivery a future-focused talent pipeline – Canada’s polytechnics are also well positioned to contribute to discussions about the future of work.

In the Wilson Center report, Ambassador Wayne suggests a formalized, tri-lateral steering committee is needed to establish and launch workforce development initiatives with continental impact. He notes, “North America’s highly integrated production and commercial networks mean that more regional collaboration on these workforce and workplace challenges is essential. If done well, such collaboration can simultaneously create quality jobs, achieve higher levels of productivity and strengthen the competitiveness of the region vis-à-vis China and other global economic powers. To neglect this task or to do it poorly or not at all would be an invitation for severe economic and political disruptions.”

As we consider the partnership strengths and potential of Canada’s polytechnics, Ambassador Wayne encourages us to take a broader North American perspective. Finding ways to work in collaboration with our international partners stands to mitigate economic risk and ensure each country is positioned to benefit from an efficient, productive and globally competitive workforce.

About the Author

Daniel Komesch, Director of Policy at Polytechnics Canada

As Director of Policy, Daniel is responsible for all Polytechnics Canada policy files, with expertise related to skills and employment, apprenticeship and labour market information. He supports the work of Vice Presidents, Academic, including an ongoing initiative to consider how members can collaborate to offer micro-credentials. Daniel holds a Master’s in International Public Policy from the Balsillie School of International Affairs at Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU) and a Bachelor in Political Science, also from WLU. He is a prolific writer on the subject of polytechnic education.