Features | From Pivot Magazine

Skills—not jobs—are the key to conquering the labour market

Canada has a healthy labour market and record-low unemployment. So why are we so worried about work?

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A stressed looking young businessman sitting on the walkway of an office building It’s not that Canadians are worried about their jobs today; it’s a creeping sense of insecurity that they won’t be able to stay relevant for the jobs of tomorrow (Getty Images/Sarinyapinngam)

It can often be a challenge to square the circle between public perception of an economic trend and the actual data behind it. For example, if I were to ask you, right now, “How concerned are you about the economy and jobs?” what would you say?

If you’re like any of the Ontarians who responded to a recent Ipsos poll, the answer is, “very.” The poll showed that “the economy and jobs” was one of the most frequently cited concerns among voters, second only to health care—the perennial top answer in any such survey. A more recent national poll suggested that, while only 26 per cent of Canadians thought “job opportunities for Canadians” was “a very big problem,” another 44 per cent felt it was a moderately big problem. In other words, seven out of every 10 people think that jobs are something we ought to be concerned about.

Yet, data point after data point that we’ve seen recently about the labour market, and the economy more broadly, suggests otherwise. At 5.6 per cent, the unemployment rate is at a record low. The employment-to-population ratio among prime working-age Canadians (those aged 15 to 64) is 74.1 per cent, tying the record high set in December 2017. Even the threat of unemployment seems to be diminishing. According to Statistics Canada, the average tenure for full-time employees is 108 months, just a touch below the record high of 111 months set in 2015. Among part-timers, it’s at 76 months—a record high. By nearly any metric, there are more employed Canadians with longer tenures today than at any other point in history.

Sure, there may be some niggling issues here and there that might colour the fringes of the story, but it’d be difficult to argue that the broad contours of the labour market are anything but strong.

So why all the concern? It’s possible that this is a referendum on the quality of jobs, not the quantity. It’s no coincidence that the same survey showing 70 per cent of Canadians concerned about the availability of jobs also showed that 86 per cent are worried about wages and the cost of living.

“Decades of economic crises, bubbles popped and disruption have ingrained in us the idea that every job is vulnerable.”

But I think there’s more to this than just dollars. The labour market is going through turbulent change: the rise of the gig economy (and the digital economy, more broadly), the growth of precarious work, concerns that technological innovations like AI are going to threaten more middle-skilled, middle-income jobs. All of these shifts intersect at one thing: a growing sense of insecurity.

That insecurity might manifest in a very tangible way for some, such as precarious workers facing volatile incomes or being uncertain about the future of their short-term job contracts. But it would be naïve to think that those in full-year, full-time work are free from insecurity.

Decades of economic crises, bubbles popped and companies “disrupted” due to technological change have ingrained in us the idea that there is always an element of vulnerability in any job. Consider Lehman Brothers prior to 2008, or Nortel prior to the late 1990s—those probably felt like secure jobs. Until they weren’t. In this labour market, the only way to secure your future is to stay marketable.

That notion is at the heart of labour market angst. It’s not that Canadians are worried about their jobs today; it’s a creeping sense of insecurity that they won’t be able to stay relevant for the jobs of tomorrow.

“The necessity to constantly upgrade our skills is no longer something we can just talk about and not act on.”

And who can blame them? New technologies and ways of doing business—Big Data, or machine learning, for example—are very likely to drive the next stage of evolution in the labour market. Yet, how many ordinary Canadians without a degree in computer science are capable of either understanding or using these new tools? They don’t even need to be that complicated to create the sense that you’re behind the eight ball. How many of us feel like we’d benefit from more technical skills, like learning how to code in Python or Java or R, or how to use Photoshop, but never get around to it?

In November, a consortium of organizations including Ryerson University, the Brookfield Institute and the Conference Board of Canada won the mandate to launch the Future Skills Centre, one of the main ways the federal government is going to address these skill gaps. It’s being billed as part of the answer to all of our questions about how we’re going to retrain and upskill a labour market of more than 17 million working Canadians and prepare them for the future.

But the reality is that we have very few answers. It’s not clear what kind of programming is effective, whether or not that differs based on an individual’s background, how best to deliver said programming, or who’s going to fund it. It’s not even clear that this is something the government can take on—it may very well have to centre on the private sector, or even the individual. In fact, there are numerous private sector initiatives, and CPA Canada has launched its own extensive Foresight consultation, each effort trying to answer these difficult questions, because the way we think about our working lives has fundamentally shifted. The necessity to constantly upgrade our skills is no longer something we can just talk about and not act on. The consequences of technological change are already here.

So whether these initiatives succeed or fail is going to be of critical importance—because this is about far more than just skills. It’s about our sense of security.