This year’s International Women’s Day is an opportunity to reflect on the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women and young workers. Those from racialized groups and in low-paid positions have been disproportionately affected. Between February and November 2020, 58,000 men joined the labour force, whereas 31,000 women left it. In an economic downturn that affected some sectors and occupations much more than others, the divide in the Canadian workforce has never been so stark.
As the country turns its attention to recovery, we need to ask ourselves what coordinated policy action is needed to ensure no one is left behind in Canada’s post-pandemic economy. A downturn like no other requires a response unlike anything we’ve seen before.
One idea is to ensure women and others displaced by the pandemic have access to education and upskilling that validates existing competencies and experiences, provides clear pathways back into the labour market and offers flexible wraparound supports.
This is critical because research shows that the longer people are out of work, the harder it is for them to get back on track. Unless the jobs that disappeared rebound faster than anticipated, recovery means asking these workers to step into new roles and develop new skills. This calls for an unprecedented investment in skills training for the mid-career workforce.
In an ideal world, governments could rely on individuals to migrate to those sectors, regions and occupations where employers had skills deficits. Employers could identify and articulate their future skills needs, sending clear signals to the labour market. Workers would understand and plan for career disruptions, pursuing training that opens the door to new and emerging fields. When the economy faltered, governments could release money into the training system and know that those who needed new skills were developing them.
The reality is far from ideal, requiring that financial supports be accompanied by needs assessments and career guidance. In today’s circumstances, we need rapid reskilling solutions that fill gaps and transition people back to work as quickly as possible.
This is no easy feat, but polytechnic institutions are well-positioned to help. Whether learners are looking to earn a credential, learn a new skill or grow their career, continuing education resources are designed to deliver in-demand skills training with maximum flexibility. Their existing relationships with business give polytechnics insights into the skills employers need today. Polytechnics have long been in the business of skills assessments and validation, gap analyses and just-in-time training. In a post-pandemic Canada, this is capacity that must be activated.
In communities across Canada, we’re beginning to see this work in action. For example, Saskatchewan Polytechnic recently partnered with the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce to deliver virtual continuing education programming. This includes professional development programs. corporate training and micro-credentials.
Algonquin College has made recent investments in their We Saved You a Seat program to provide women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs with bursaries for take-home kits. These will support remote learning, including technology and internet essential to making online skills development possible.
At Sheridan, involvement with the charity Home Suite Hope offers additional supports to single parents and their children. Sheridan supports foundational skills training for low-income, single parents, including scholarships to their diploma programs and professional development programs. Other partners provide vital wraparound supports that enable families to move from poverty to stability.
These are the kind of initiatives and investments that will be critical to an inclusive recovery, one that reengages women and the other workers heavily impacted over the past year. Helping those displaced by the pandemic find re-entry points into the workforce is a goal worthy of International Women’s Day 2021.