The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on Canada’s labour markets and social services. Unemployment has grown rapidly and unevenly: a study published in June by Thomas Lemieux, Kevin Milligan, Tammy Schirle, and Mikal Skuterud found almost half of all workers who lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic were low-wage workers, while Statistics Canada has found that the July unemployment rates for Black, South Asian and Arab Canadians were much higher than rates for white Canadians, while rates for women were higher than for men. People who were unemployed or underemployed before the pandemic are, of course, also particularly affected by the turbulent labour market. It appears that groups of people who were already marginalized from the labour market are the hardest hit.
Like many people, my work was also affected by the pandemic: I research workforce development systems, but I thought I was researching how they work in a strong economic climate. Instead, I am now building a picture of these services before and during the pandemic. My research examines who gets access to training services and how access is shaped by the ways that services are organized and funded. Drawing on 60 interviews with people involved in training in a wide range of ways, here I investigate how the pandemic has affected the barriers that people face when trying to get access to training and employment.
The pivot online
As many readers will have experienced, providers worked hard to move their core services to online or phone-based channels after lockdown measures were put in place. Some managed this in a matter of weeks, while others have taken several months to set up their online class structures – depending in part on their existing online tech set up and on the complexity of their course design. Many Employment Ontario-supported counselling sessions and job search workshops are going ahead, but some organizations that provide industry-focused training have needed more time to move hands-on content to a digital environment.
Many organizations have also worked hard to shift their focus toward helping people navigate the different kinds of income support available and to helping people meet their basic needs. Income support isn’t an unfamiliar topic for most career services, but it has become a much more central part of their daily work. Providers have set aside extra staff time to help people understand whether they are eligible for CERB, how CERB and EI or ODSP work together, or whether they need to turn to other provincial social assistance.
Of the 36 providers I spoke with (mainly in Ontario), almost all were yet to experience issues with their funding. Funders, including all levels of government, have not applied pressure about missing targets for securing client employment in recognition that this is a much more difficult goal now. Some funders have even provided additional support so that providers can pass on small grants to their clients or to help move services online. However, providers are facing increasing demand and many frontline staff and managers have put in extra hours to make the pivot to online work – usually while earning relatively low wages (especially when compared to the earnings of similarly qualified workers with a bachelor’s degree or more advanced certification).
Old and new barriers to training and employment
While providers have adapted to delivering services, they are also seeing their clients face new barriers to training and work. Andrew Bassingthwaighte’s recent CareerWise piece outlined some of the core accessibility challenges that online learning carries: some people do not have access to a device or a solid internet connection to train online. These are notable and important barriers, and service providers and Toronto Employment & Social Services (TESS) alike have been providing small grants to assist people with getting the technology they need to participate online. However, old barriers to training also remain.
One key point made by several providers is that shifting to online services does not erase existing barriers to training. Instead, people seeking help face the same core barriers to retraining, just in different forms. For example, access to childcare is a major barrier for many people – especially women, who still do the bulk of care work – who are looking to upskill or find work. Prior to the pandemic, people would struggle with the costs of childcare or finding suitable options for childcare for work outside of standard hours. During the pandemic, being able to take part in training and coaching from home can be helpful for some, but when there are no options for childcare, people face difficulties juggling their responsibilities to make time for courses and in making decisions about finding safe care for their kids. The same structural barriers that working mothers face apply to caregivers who are currently looking for work. As a result, the gender gap in labour force participation persists.
“One key point made by several providers is that shifting to online services does not erase existing barriers to training.”
Similar issues occur when it comes to housing: in my research in New York and Toronto, unstable housing came up repeatedly as a barrier to completing training and moving into employment. Now, job losses and income instability have made it harder for some people to secure affordable housing. Toronto’s already-overburdened emergency housing system has struggled to keep up with demand for beds and to implement social distancing measures. The City of Toronto is working on plans for changes, but barriers remain. For people without safe housing, even thinking about looking for work is impossible: survival must come first. Providers have reported that the pandemic has exacerbated housing-related barriers for some of their clients.
There is, of course, an even more obvious new hurdle for jobseekers: the job market has contracted significantly. People who were already out of work at the beginning of the pandemic now face more competition and fewer job opportunities to pursue than they did previously. Groups who usually face a tougher time on the labour market are now facing even worse odds than before. Across Canada, employment has begun to increase slightly, but there are still 1.1 million fewer jobs than there were in February and the number of jobseekers has continued to increase. Providers and jobseekers told me that the impact of this is two-fold: it’s much harder to find jobs to apply for and people are becoming discouraged about continuing to search for work in such a tough economic climate.
Ideally, this would be a time to gain new skills to try and re-enter the labour market in a better position once job growth resumes. Right now, employment and training funding is mainly focused on short-term courses to improve CVs and provide minor skills upgrades. While the Canadian Federal Government has shown a great interest in improving and expanding Canada’s workforce development, it will be absolutely vital that this becomes an integral part of the pandemic response.
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