Hard lessons loom for Canada in retooling for the new economy

Working adults, take note: our country is ill-prepared for the disruptions today and tomorrow in technology that will cost many of us our jobs.

Late last year, without much attention, the federal Advisory Council on Economic Growth identified a gap – a $15 billion annual gap – in an additional “critically important investment” on training and post-secondary education to meet our needs.

Without it, workers will not be able to take advantage of new opportunities, “leading to severe consequences for their families’ well-being and the overall growth prospects of the country’s economy.”

The council’s report, Learning Nation: Equipping Canada’s Workforce with Skills for the Future, paints a distressing picture of a country walking toward a wall of fire. It suggests Canada is at a critical disadvantage in failing to support lifelong learning.

It notes that automation and changes in existing occupations will threaten the jobs of between 10% and 12% of Canadian workers by 2030 if they do not acquire new formal skills.

By 2030, too, automation will displace one-quarter of the tasks workers perform today. Most at risk will be roles held by low-skilled and low-paid workers, but automation will “hollow out a range of ‘mid-skilled’ professions and affect a large swath of the middle class,” the council says.

At the moment, Canada focuses its attention on two pillars: those who have not yet entered the workforce and those who have left it. The council believes a third pillar needs to be created to support working adults. Without it, “Canada’s skills development infrastructure is simply not equipped to meet the challenges that lie ahead,” it warns.

“In the short and medium term, it is working adults who will bear the brunt of the disruption’s impact. Over time, inaction would seriously damage Canada’s economic stability and social cohesion.”

What kind of social cohesion does it mean? The council notes the connection between work and self-esteem, between income inequality and such matters as social trust and intolerance. At risk, it says, could be our “social fabric.”

The 14-member council was created nearly two years ago to chronicle the challenges for Canada’s economy. It is chaired by McKinsey & Co. managing director Dominic Barton and has provided a series of three releases aimed at bracing Canada for conditions ahead.

The council recommends two starting points for the transformation: a Canada Lifelong Learning Fund to co-finance investments by employers and individuals in skills training, and the conversion of federal employment centres into hands-on hubs for training and career guidance.

The fund would require $2.5 billion to match existing Labour Market Development Agreements and would co-finance training and upgrading, provide grants and loans to working adults and help Canadians spend more time pursuing skills through paid leaves.

The new employment centres would foster partnered networks of businesses in search of labour, along with educators and training services that can provide programs. Provinces would then run the centres with agreed-upon national standards.

These would be part of a broader skills plan for working Canadians that the council believes is necessary to raise the median pre-tax household income level $15,000 above current projections by 2030.

For pre-working Canadians, the council is advising educational priorities on “soft skills” of collaboration, communication and problem-solving.

The challenge, though, is for ideas like these to gain traction in a political system that often doesn’t think beyond a next election.

To date, the Trudeau government has been aligned in adopting the council’s grander work on such issues as infrastructure financing, foreign investment and immigration, among others.

This report, though, is the starkest look yet at the need to steer a new course. That wall of fire will touch many of us otherwise. •

Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver Media Group and vice-president of Glacier Media.

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