Last week’s Fall Economic Statement from the Ontario government highlighted the province’s efforts to transform its skills-training regime. The policy and programming changes are sweeping including consolidating 100s of employment service contracts into a small number of regional arrangements. It’s still too early to say whether the redesign will produce better outcomes for Ontarians. But the case for reform seems clear in light of rapid labour market changes and the potential for significant labour dislocation particularly among those without post-secondary credentials.
While Ontario is a world leader in educational attainment, it’s easy to forget that 1.8 million Ontarians in prime working age (25-54) don’t have post-secondary credentials. And the research shows that these workers are the most susceptible to dislocation caused by a combination of trade and technology.
It’s important therefore that Ontario’s employment and training services are ready to support these workers obtain the training and supports they need to fully participate in the economy. The province currently spends over $1 billion on these services each year. While many Ontarians already benefit from this investment, as we argue in a recent paper for the University of Toronto’s Ontario 360 project, Ontario must do more.
The truth is that the province’s adult learning system isn’t equipped to address growing needs. Ontario – like Canada as a whole – has long been considered a laggard in adult learning. Numerous reports have shown Ontario’s adult learning participation rates are well below the OECD average. And even worse, the data shows that those who are most likely to need training – including those without post-secondary qualifications – are the least likely to receive it.
What can Ontario do to make its training system better prepared to address growing demands and ultimately produce better results?
Our research finds that one of the most important steps is to ensure that employment and training services are demand-informed. That is to say the programming should be focused on preparing people for jobs that are in-demand in the local economy. It seems self-evident in theory, but it can be more difficult to achieve in practice.
Sector-based training models are a promising approach to achieve this objective. The model, as the name suggests, is a set of employment and training services that are focused on specific industry sectors and developed in consultation with industry partners. This laser sharp focus enables service providers to develop deep industry expertise and build strong relationships with employers and in turn help workers get the right training and access to in-demand jobs in the local labour market. Multiple rigorous studies have found that the sector-based model has positive impacts on both employment and earnings.
The good news is that Ontario is already experimenting with sector-based training. The SkillsAdvance Ontario is a pilot initiative that’s providing support to jobseekers with sector-specific employment and training services and helping employers recruit and advance workers with the right skills. Early signs are highly positive. The government should, therefore, continue to invest in these projects and evaluate them to understand their effectiveness in the Ontario context.
But to move beyond individual programs and build a truly demand-informed system, the government also needs a scalable and replicable way of connecting training to local labour market need. This will require system-wide infrastructure that brings the right partners (including employers, industry associations, labour unions, post-secondary institutions, and other stakeholders) together to design, deliver and coordinate access to training.
Initiatives like Tourism Skillnet Ontario, which brings together stakeholders in the tourism and hospitality industries to identify recruitment and training needs and align training with those needs, are promising examples of how to better align training with local labour market need. Ontario could also consider supporting business-led training networks, modelled after the Skillnet program in Ireland. Under this model, groups of employers organized by sector or geographically could apply to form a training network organization that would coordinate training activities.
More and better investments in lifelong learning are needed to help Ontarians in all stages of their working life make informed career choices and access flexible, effective training options that will prepare them for jobs in in-demand sectors and occupations.
Shifting Ontario’s training system to be more agile, responsive, and demand-informed won’t happen overnight, but the costs of not doing so are high – for vulnerable jobseekers, for employers, and ultimately, for Ontario’s future prosperity. It’s important therefore that the Ontario governments get its skills-training transformation right.
Karen Myers is the president and CEO of Blueprint ADE and Kelly Pasolli is a Director at Blueprint ADE They are both co-authors of a recent paper on skills-training reform for the Ontario 360 project.