Thursday, August 5, 2021
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Research & Trends

Help Wanted: Modernizing Ontario’s employment and training system

A growing chorus of businesses across Ontario report that difficulty finding, recruiting and retaining talent with the right skills is a significant barrier to their growth. At the same time, an increasing number of people are finding themselves unable to successfully secure employment and build their careers – signs that existing tools used to develop talent and connect people with jobs are not working.

Workforce development refers to the range of policies, programs and practices that prepare the workforce (employed and unemployed) for the economy’s needs, often with a focus on inclusive economic development. Its scope includes education, as well as employment and training initiatives, including training delivered on-the-job by employers.

In Help Wanted, a recent report from the Toronto Region Board of Trade, the Metcalf Foundation and United Way Greater Toronto, we note that the foundation for new employment and skills-training programs should be rooted in solutions that align with the specific challenges faced by Ontario’s workforce and industries.

The more initiatives are tailored to the needs and challenges experienced by industries, workers and jobseekers, the more effectively they can meet the needs of those constituents. Specific examples include recruitment and training programs for new talent developed through industry-driven partnerships, including wrap-around supports for jobseekers; and industry-recognized upskilling for mid-career workers that is practical, short-term and supports career advancement without requiring people to leave their jobs. Programs that most effectively meet the needs of business and people are flexible in their design and delivery, and as such are able to address structural barriers, add greater value to business and often achieve long-term outcomes.

Case study in success: Support Ontario Youth (SOY)

Our report profiles Support Ontario Youth (SOY), a sister organization of the Ontario Electrical League (OEL), as a leading example of an effective, industry-led workforce development partnership.

SOY’s objective is to fulfill the current and future demand for electricians in Ontario. Electricians in the province are a compulsory trade with specific skills, experience and hours required to complete a Certification of Apprenticeship (CoA) to legally work in Ontario. OEL and SOY also have the mandate to diversify electrician demographics in the province. Together, these goals have shaped their workforce development approach.

Facing an anticipated wave of retirements in the coming years, there is a need to train and certify new apprentices. However, several factors in the industry and its regulatory environment contribute to the challenges experienced by prospective apprentices and employers.

Among the challenges SOY sought to address when developing its approach was to increase the number of companies registering and training apprentices (the only way to train an apprentice is to have an employer sponsor). There are a variety of reasons employers, especially small companies, are hesitant to register new apprentices. These include additional administrative burden, time and effort required to train less experienced workers, and the risk of apprentices leaving to work for a competitor.

As a result, instead of training new people, many companies resort to a strategy of recruiting existing talent from other companies, which does not increase or replenish the supply of licensed electricians to offset anticipated retirements.

Support Ontario Youth is working to fulfill the current and future demand for electricians in Ontario. (iStock)

To address these issues, SOY/OEL developed a multi-pronged approach to increase the supply and diversity of new apprentices in Ontario:

  1. Set a target and focus on increasing the number of companies registering and training apprentices: To support this work, SOY has a dedicated service for small companies to increase their capacity to train apprentices. This includes a licensed electrician serving as a coach, ensuring businesses are more effective trainers and employers of new apprentices.
  2. Promote career prospects to potential apprentices who may not have considered the trade in the past: SOY promotes the career prospects and requirements of electricians to diverse communities and uses a blind application form and assessment process to serve as an initial filter gauging candidates’ aptitude and fit as potential apprentices. The assessment measures things like the candidate’s interest and ability to work independently, level of detail and precision, and hard skills including math. The assessment also ensures factors related to unconscious bias are eliminated, allowing applicant skills to be assessed objectively.
  3. Serve as a group sponsor for apprentices: Through a group sponsorship, an apprentice is registered through SOY as opposed to directly with an employer. A benefit to this approach is that the administrative burden to register and track the skill development of an apprentice falls on SOY instead of the employer. SOY also monitors and supports apprentices to ensure they continue to work, attend in-class training and get the required experience to successfully complete the CoA requirements. As the group sponsor, SOY is able to address structural barriers that can make it challenging for apprentices to receive a full scope of on-the-job experience. SOY addresses this by co-ordinating apprentice moves to employers that require varying levels of specialization as they advance their skills in the third or fourth year of their apprenticeship.

Eliminating structural barriers to workforce development

Organizations like SOY are a great example of how workforce programs can be designed based on employers’ and workers’ needs through flexible and customized solutions.

Help Wanted calls for a combination of more targeted initiatives focusing on specific sectoral needs for both new talent and upskilling of mid-career workers. It also proposes incentivizing innovation and flexibility in program design and delivery to achieve desired outcomes, especially when focusing on jobseekers with a greater distance from the labour market.

Given the provincial government’s current changes to Ontario’s employment and training system, our report highlights the opportunity to modernize the workforce development system and public investments to improve outcomes and enable innovative solutions while building on best practices in the current system.

As the nature of work changes, it is increasingly incumbent on publicly funded services to prepare and upskill workers faster and more effectively, while ensuring that people who are unemployed are given the support and opportunity to build their skills and careers. Building the capacity of our workforce development system with tailored solutions will ensure that people are not left out of the workforce and that businesses have access to the skills and talent they need to grow.

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Danielle Olsen is a Metcalf Innovation Fellow and Raly Chakarova is a Director, Policy at the Toronto Region Board of Trade.
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Danielle Olsen is a Metcalf Innovation Fellow and Raly Chakarova is a Director, Policy at the Toronto Region Board of Trade.
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