As ‘jobs for life’ disappear, focus turns to reskilling

Government interest in training highlights need for new skills
By Marcel Vander Wier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/28/2019
education, training
Seneca College in Toronto is launching a reskilling program. Google Street View

As news of the impending shuttering of General Motors’ Oshawa assembly plant continues to reverberate in Ontario, for many workers, the focus has turned towards reskilling.

“Some of those people I’m sure thought that they had a job for life and now they need to perhaps get some skills to allow them to re-enter that workforce,” said Chris Dudley, director of the TD-Helix Transformation Initiative, a soon-to-be-launched reskilling program at Seneca College in Toronto.

The need to reskill is especially critical for professionals at risk of job loss due to technological advances, he said.

The movement has caught the eye of the federal government, and the 2019 budget is expected to focus on skills training, as technology continues to render some jobs obsolete.

“Retraining and training will be increasingly important,” Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos told the Canadian Press.

“We need to work with partners — provinces and territories — but given that the challenges faced by provinces and territories are in many cases common to all… there is a federal role that needs to be addressed.”

It is important to have many partners involved in the reskilling solution — including employers and employees — rather than relying solely on the education system, said Ray Barton, CEO of Vitesse, a non-profit reskilling organization in Kanata, Ont.

“We need more national debate on the subject because there’s no silver bullet,” he said.

Businesses in general are wanting everyone to be job-ready day one, said Barton.

“And, basically, they expect the government or somebody else to pick up the costs. They’re very reluctant to pick up those costs today,” he said.

“The business’s role is absolutely important and they must be involved... You cannot create an effective program or labour market strategy without them.”

Reskilling is not necessarily a new idea, nor is Canada ill-prepared for this moment, said Marie-Hélène Budworth, assistant professor of human resource management at York University in Toronto.

“This is just the nature of careers at the moment, and it has been for quite some time now — the understanding that your career will no longer be linear, and what you trained to do at the beginning of your career will change and adapt, and you’ll have to change and adapt and move, depending on the nature of the work.”

Continuous learning

Continuous learning is critical to successful long-term career employment — that should be reflected in organizational structure, said Budworth.

“The nature of work, employment, our world over the last 100 years implies that the thing that I learned to do today is not the thing that I’ll need to know how to do tomorrow,” she said.

“It will no longer be useful, regardless of the career I’m in, the path I take, or what I decide to do with regards to employment.”

“The only certainty is that I can be successful if I have a few core sets of skills and one of those is being engaged in how to continuously learn, continuously adapt, continuously acquire new skills, new insights and to be able to do that on my own.”

Responsibility for learning falls on all those associated in work relationships — including the workers themselves, said Budworth.

“To remain competitive, we need to continue learning,” she said. “So that should be reflected in different ways in how we build our organizations, how we build policy around employment and employment standards.”

Oftentimes, continuous learning is overlooked in favour of a “static skill” found in past degrees or certificates, according to Budworth.

“That’s limiting,” she said. “Viewing yourself as a continuous, ongoing learner at an individual level, but then at a societal level, understanding the importance of that value for all of us puts us in a much better position to be prepared for the types of things that will come down the pipeline that we can’t even anticipate.”

There are “fundamental differences” between training and reskilling, according to Barton.

“Everyone tends to focus on skills,” he said. “We need to focus more on competencies. The difference between skills and competencies is universities today produce lots of people with good skills, but they’re still not meeting the demands of business.”

“Business is looking not just for your knowledge or your skills, but they’re actually looking for experience, where you’ve actually applied the knowledge which you have gained in a project.”

Reskilling is not the provision of basic analytical skills, but rather building on abilities and refocusing them on current labour demands, said Barton.

“As long as they have the analytical skills, you can focus in terms of what’s in demand,” he said. “And the skills that were in demand four years ago are not the ones that are going to get you a job today.”

Division of responsibility

Employers, employees, government and post-secondary institutions each need to play a role in reskilling initiatives in order to find success, said Budworth.

“Post-secondary is one place you will find it, but you’ll find it probably more broadly across a range of spaces,” she said.

“There’s always new and emerging programs that universities are developing that respond to new trends in employment, that are a bit more progressive,” said Budworth. “Often, you’ll find them through certificate programs or through continuing education in some institutions, and those programs certainly fit for this market.”

Seneca College, for example, is launching a reskilling initiative in March meant to empower professionals to become intrapreneurs, able to innovate within their existing jobs to adapt to new needs within the labour market, said Dudley.

The programming is meant to “build resilience in mid-career individuals to survive the changing workplace and to develop 21st-century skills that are required to thrive and/or re-enter the workforce.”

Topics covered in the sessions will include interview skills, design thinking, effective communication and resiliency, he said.

“Work has changed in Canada,” said Dudley. “People don’t have jobs for life. People are moving between jobs or between companies, or even within the same company, moving to different jobs within that company. And you need to have those resilience skills, those adaptability quotients to be successful in those new challenges.”

As for employers, their role in training and development is often suppressed by business pressures, said Barton.

“We can’t blame businesses for not wanting to invest in training,” he said.

“They’re facing a very competitive situation where the window of opportunity to develop something is quite narrow.”

For the most part, employers are looking for recruits both with skills and experience, which is where internships and co-op programming play a critical role, said Barton.

“Universities are trying to work more to be aligned with businesses today which is good,” he said. “But, at the same time… they need to do what they do well, and that is provide those basic analytical skills.”

Employer’s role

Some organizations remain firmly committed to on-the-job training, said Budworth.

“Some employers are very committed to the idea of ongoing learning and developing their employees — whether the employees stay with them or not,” she said. “They see themselves as a place where continuous learning is an important feature of an employee’s experience.”

HR professionals can take a leadership role by seeking out specific skills in the recruitment process, and identifying what can be learned on the job, said Budworth.

“Often, when we hire people, we look specifically for the types of skills that represent what they’ll be doing day-to-day on the job… when, really, we’ve learned that that doesn’t necessarily predict performance on the job — especially for jobs where the work itself changes dramatically over the course of employment.”

Rather, HR should look to hire those possessing skills that more accurately predict employment success, she said.

These include critical thinking or team skills, “looking beyond checking off boxes around a set of behaviours and more towards looking at ‘I can teach them how to do these things. I should be hiring for these broader predictors of performance that are linked to broader education.’”

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