Workforce Flexibility, Lifelong Learning, and all that Jazz, are in need of a Conductor

..by Terrance Hunsley

A recent study published by the Conference Board of Canada, an industry-supported think tank, does what some research does so well – tells us something we already know, but expresses it well enough to make us think it’s important.

The study looked at people working in Ontario’s travel and tourism sector, which is being bashed by COVID, and asked what the options are for workers whose jobs and lives are being disrupted.  What they found was that workers in the sector could have an average of about nine potential “transitions” to other occupations outside the sector that could use some of their skills.  As we might expect, the workers with technological, professional and leadership jobs have more options. Workers with skills specific to a small part of the sector (railroad brakemen for example) have very few options. In almost all cases, a successful transition would require more education or training, potential relocation to another region, and potential acceptance of lower pay. 

The key takeaways for me were, firstly, that almost any transition requires prior preparation to obtain needed skills, knowledge of opportunities, preparation for financial adjustment and relocation. Second, and more important, was that up until the time the disruption happened, no one in the industry was thinking about that!  With all of the expertise and research knowledge of the labour market that we have, employers were giving no thought to the future wellbeing of their workers. There is no evidence that unions were in there helping people to equip themselves to move to better jobs. Public education systems and employment support services were absent or asleep at the switch. There was no ongoing preparation of workers for adaptability, financial security, and future success! For all of the talk about the need for worker adaptability, flexibility, entrepreneurship, and lifelong learning, and with all of our institutional resources, nothing, repeat, nothing was being done!

It seems to me that the people responsible – economists, government planners, industry leaders, union leaders, think too much about jobs and not enough about people. 

If work is to fuel our economy and sustain our society through the massive economic disruption resulting from COVID, globalization, automation, AI, the information technology revolution, and platform businesses, we need to start seriously thinking about people.

In a report I prepared a year ago for the Pearson Centre entitled Future of Work Policies for the 2020’s, I recommended that governments establish industry sector councils with equal representation of business management and workers. Part of their mandate would be to monitor working conditions in the sector, recommend ongoing training and accreditation programs for all workers, and also recommend reference wage structures. The focus of these organizations would be the future of the workers, as well as the future of the industry. 

I had a glimmer of hope when the federal budget announced some ninety million dollars for “sectoral solutions”.  But my hopes were dashed when I read further that the money would be used by Employment and Social Development Canada to work with employers, and no mention of workers. 

We can exhort Canadian workers to be constantly learning and ready to adapt. But if we don’t empower them to do it, it ain’t gonna happen.  We need a conductor who cares for the musicians as well as the music.

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