Second Career gains momentum

Ontario’s government funded job retraining program ‘all about the individual’

“Twenty years and now they’re pushing me out the door. They took my job, well they don’t need me anymore,” sings Rob Montplaisir, a laid-off Ford worker strumming an acoustic guitar in a YouTube video.

“Some good news came by the telephone. They said I should go back to school. I’m so afraid because it’s been so damn long. But what else do I have to lose?... All I need is a little help to get back on my feet.”

The video aired during an appreciation night for laid-off workers of Ford/CAW Local 200 in Windsor, Ont. They had gone back to school to achieve skills and knowledge in new, more promising fields such as construction, border services and the culinary arts through the Ontario government’s Second Career program.

Set up to provide “career planning and financial support specially designed to help laid-off Ontarians participate in long-term training for a new job,” Second Career includes government financing up to $28,000 per individual to pay for tuition, travel, books and other costs.

As of August, 12,964 people were enrolled in the program, with most coming from the unsettled manufacturing industries.

Launched in June 2008, the job retraining program has had its fair share of bad press — “Retraining ‘tough sell,’ McGuinty admits,” stated the Toronto Star in January, or “Workers under fire to pay for retraining,” said a headline in the London Free Press in July — while frustrated applicants log their complaints online.

Enrolment climbs for one-year-old program

But the workers in the video, pictured smiling at graduation and at their new jobs, suggest the initiative is working. Only one year old, Second Career does not yet have statistics on job success after graduation but interest and awareness have definitely increased. Toronto’s George Brown College received only 19 applications in September 2008 but, for this fall, has about 455.

Unlike other programs, Second Career is done “in a kind and gentle way, rather than ‘Here’s our programs, fit into them,’” said Brenda Pipitone, director of community partnerships at George Brown.

Second Career is different from traditional continuing education in that it involves adult learners who have all been laid off.

“That brings with it a whole psychological component about going back to work and to training,” said Pipitone.

“We’re seeing people who, for the vast majority of their adult life, have been working and it wasn’t part of their plan to go back to school.”

George Brown is developing a model pathway to address not just the training needs but the support needs for a person who is in this particular position, who has had this shock, she said.

“We have put in place advisors at the college to meet with folks and help them map a different future than maybe they had in mind at the beginning. That can be both, as you can imagine, exciting and daunting,” she said. “We’ve really taken this opportunity to rethink many of the areas in our programs, to try to make them more flexible.”

Longer-term training to avoid ‘survival’ jobs

Initially, job retraining was about getting people back into the workforce as quickly as possible but a gap quickly became apparent, said John Milloy, Ontario’s minister of training, colleges and universities.

“In a time of economic ups and downs that we’ve seen in the last few years, people went from one ‘survival’ job to another and didn’t have an opportunity to upgrade their skills to get into an area where there were lasting, permanent opportunities,” he said.

So the “pioneering endeavour” of Second Career came about to complement short-term training with longer-term options, said Milloy.

“It was a little bit slow in the take-up but, boy, it’s certainly taken on quite a head of steam recently and we’ve seen a lot of people come forward,” he said.

But it’s no easy process. Interested candidates are asked to detail their situation, background and education and then, with the help of counsellors, assess their skills, personal interests and the labour market situation.

If long-term training is a possibility, they are asked to do a certain amount of personal work, to look at job opportunities and courses available and to come up with a plan that makes sense, that could lead to a job, said Milloy.

“It’s all about the individual and identifying what sort of boost they need to get back in the job market,” he said.

Individuals are well-supported by a network of service providers and agencies that work closely with laid-off workers to identify where there is a need in the community or job potential coming forward, he said.

While predictions about the future are difficult, often employees who have been laid off know of a job at a factory down the road, and some employers are hiring anyone qualified and available, said Milloy.

“It’s not about thinking, ‘Where’s the labour market going to be in seven or eight years?’ That sort of thought has to go on but I’m saying, from an individual’s point of view, it’s very community focused — (knowing) what’s out there, what’s going on.”

Saskatchewan takes different approach

While not exactly like Ontario’s Second Career program, the government-run Job Start/Future Skills program in Saskatchewan provides financial assistance for employers and public institutions that can then provide skills training to the unemployed.

And almost every college across the country offers some form of career-counselling services, said Bob McCulloch, president and CEO of the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology (SIAST) in Saskatoon, which has 15,000 students and about 160 programs.

“With all due respect, I don’t think we need to rely strictly on government funded job retraining opportunities,” he said.

“I would encourage people to talk to their post-secondary institutions. Instead of looking, ‘What are the feds offering, what’s the province offering?’ have a chat. Because once you’ve found a program, then you might look for support, through student loans, apprenticeships, those kinds of things. There are many other options.”

Schools are taking more creative approaches to education, he said, such as SIAST’s partnership with New Brunswick Community College to help retrain laid-off miners through a couple of courses. Or a very short pre-employment course to expose people to certain skill sets. The institute also has three mobile training labs in semi-trailers that travel to mines, First Nation reserves or regional colleges offering short-course training for electricians, machinists or carpenters.

“It’s a really good way to do on-site, work-based training,” said McCulloch.

A recent survey for the institute found 98 per cent of employers would hire a SIAST graduate again, he said, and most colleges in Canada are in the 90-plus-per-cent range because they are well-connected with the industry.

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