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As we move past the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a tension between the desire to go back to the way things were in the workplace before, and an interest in finding new and better ways to work.
Longer-term expectations about such things as remote work, access to sick days and work-life balance remain up for debate.
Skills training has been affected by this combination of uncertainty and opportunity. Like all aspects of work, training was first interrupted but then changed by the pandemic. Some types of skills training became less available, while much of the focus on the training that did take place shifted to the immediate need to minimize the spread of the virus at work. But there were innovations as well, including the increased use of online delivery of skills training.
By 2023, uptake of skills training rebounded in the context of a fully reopened economy. But COVID-19 forced us to challenge the status quo and accelerate adoption of new approaches. We need to combine a re-start with a re-think that will lead us forward. Complacency in the face of a rapidly changing world is risky.
First, we need to think about who accesses skills training and why, and – even more importantly – who is left behind. According to a recent study on skills training participation, workers under the age of 30 are the most likely to have participated in skills training in the past year, but much of this training is “onboarding,” related to starting a new job. Participation in training then drops off as workers age: fewer than half of those aged 40 and older received training last year. At a time of rapid changes in the workplace, and when we want to keep workers in the workforce longer, expanding skills opportunities for older workers is key.
There is also a need to broaden the focus of the training. Currently, the most common type of skills training in Canada is that which relates to workplace health and safety. While important, we need to prepare people for future jobs and workplace transitions. Training in the use of new technology, in leadership or in communications is much less common – despite the changes in the economy driven by digitization, “greenification” and global competition.
Employers can also do more to advance upskilling and reskilling. Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) provide 90% of private sector employment in Canada compared to 50% in the U.S. But these enterprises tend to under-invest in training, given their need to focus on everyday survival.
More is needed to address barriers to skills training. The Diversity Institute’s recent skills training report found that the most common reason why workers do not undertake skills training is because they do not feel they need to (55% of those who did not undertake training in the past year say it was because they already had the skills they needed). It is in employers’ interest – as much as it is in the interest of workers themselves – to help people overcome this assumption.
Cost and lack of time are a less common barrier. While only 15% overall say cost is their main barrier to accessing training, this figure is higher for racialized workers (27%), first- and second-generation immigrants (22% and 21%), and workers with a physical disability (22%). Steps are needed to help these and other groups overcome the obstacles they face.
Finally, as the workforce, markets and investor expectations change, so are demands for authentic equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) strategies. While training is only a small part of an effective EDI strategy, our research suggests that a lot of the current EDI training is perfunctory at best. This type of training is the least likely to be delivered in person (29% compared to an average of 43% for other types of training ), the most likely to be delivered individually rather than in a group (55% compared to an average of 47%), and the most likely to last less than one day (54% compared to an average of 40%).
While skills training participation appears to be on the upswing, this is not the time to be complacent. Upskilling and reskilling employees is essential for employers to “future proof” their business. We have to move faster to build skills training cultures that equip us not only to manage today’s challenges, but to prepare for the ones we will face tomorrow.