Future Skills Centre invests $32 million in post-pandemic future of work, including first-of-its kind free education pilot

Jessica Galang
April 14, 2021

The Future Skills Centre, an applied research centre that tests and evaluates innovative approaches to skills development, is investing $32 million in 64 projects to “shock-proof” the workplace of the future.

The projects aim to tackle two challenges: explore the applications of new technologies in evolving or emerging sectors — such as manufacturing and cleantech — and reskilling or upskilling the workers most affected by COVID-19. The projects include a pilot program to provide free post-secondary education in Alberta, the first of its kind in Canada.

The funding comes a year after COVID-19 accelerated the digital transformation of nearly all industries, pushing sectors like retail, finance and healthcare to embrace automation, remote work and online services. Meanwhile, the majority of Canadians who lost their jobs in 2020 were low-wage workers, a category dominated by the service industry, according to a CIBC Economics analysis of Statistics Canada data.

The virus has also highlighted the healthcare barriers and inequality that marginalized groups face. COVID-19 infection rates, hospitalization rates and deaths are higher among immigrants and those who Statistics Canada identifies as visible minorities. Black, Indigenous and people of colour are more likely to hold lower-paying jobs most affected by COVID-19.

“Those who are most likely to be left behind are marked by gender, race, immigration status, and age, and it's also those groups that are least likely to have access to skills and training,” said Pedro Barata, executive director of the Future Skills Centre, in an interview with Research Money.

“That means that in order for you to have access to ongoing skills and training, you're probably going to have to pay for it out of your own pocket, or you actually have to be unemployed. For a lot of people who are looking to reskill or upskill, the access to some of those programs is a real challenge.”

As COVID-19 pushes businesses to consider new business models and ways of working, the Future Skills Centre hopes that its projects will keep Canadian businesses competitive and ensure workers aren’t being left behind by digital transformation.

An equitable workplace future

The Future Skills Centre identified five key themes that emerged through its funding. The projects have their own individual evaluation process for measuring success, and Barata notes that the Centre wants to demonstrate how the “disruptive approaches” in projects can have wider applications in other areas.

“We want to show that once you actually take that step, you can deliver outcomes that are successful both for employers and for workers,” Barata says.

The Centre’s five key themes include:

Indigenous innovations: Thirty-three projects worth $17.7 million focus on providing equitable opportunity and access for Indigenous communities.

Untried innovations: Many projects seek to create or anticipate change by training people to work differently. Nine projects, together worth $7.8 million, invest in new fields or mobilize emerging industries such as cellular agriculture, sustainable fisheries and robotic manufacturing.

Rural and remote: The projects aim to support people in rural, remote/isolated or Northern communities, with 67 percent, 35 percent and 40 percent of projects, respectively, targeted to these communities. These often involve virtual training or learning through online platforms and cultivate locally-grown industries.

New technologies: Forty-seven percent of projects apply new technologies to delivering training or services. Some use augmented or virtual reality and novel virtual interface technologies to transform training in everything from skilled trades to social services.

Inclusive workforce: Almost two-thirds of projects target specific populations such as youth, women and Indigenous peoples to “create a more diverse and equitable workforce,” a release says. Some projects aim to connect job seekers facing multiple barriers to full participation in the workforce with pathways to training and employment.

“What we want to do is provide support and a safety net for both industry and skills development providers to move fast, to experiment with these new models to take some risks and do things that may not necessarily be within their traditional comfort level,” Barata said.

The projects apply novel approaches and evaluate their impacts over time. For example, the two-year Drayton Valley project will examine the impact of providing free post-secondary education to citizens in the town. The area has been hit hard by instability in the oil and gas sector and has experienced an 80 percent increase in unemployment since 2014.

The project, run by the University of Alberta in partnership with Drayton Valley, will be receiving $659,174 in funding. The town will bring students from across Alberta to Drayton Valley for the project, which the Centre hopes will spur economic activity in the area.

Industries that have been slower to adopt new technologies will also get support from the Future Skills Centre. With $906,917 over two years, McMaster University’s School of Engineering Practice and Technology (SEPT) will lead a network of industry and municipalities to build work-integrated learning programs for McMaster Engineering students emphasizing robotics, automation and the Internet of Things.

The project will be evaluated based on how students apply their “Industry 4.0” education to problems faced by industry based on feedback from partners. There will be no cost to the partners, and the work could lead to co-op placements for students with partners.

Filling workplace gaps

While many of the projects are focused on reskilling and retraining, Barata says that by working directly with industry partners, they aim to address systemic barriers some groups face in entering the workforce and ensure that companies create a positive culture with mentorship and support for employees.

For example, a two-year project supported with $111,183 will help small manufacturers struggling with worker shortages onboard immigrants — a challenge exacerbated by the pandemic — and a two-year, $796,813 project will bridge the gap between education and training providers and Indigenous communities.

“You can equip a young racialized person with the best IT skills in the world, and make sure that they get to the front of the line when it comes to that into a job interview, but then they might go into a workplace that will actually replicate a lot of the broader systemic barriers around ageism and racism,” Barata said.

These projects are a result of a $15-million call for proposals launched in May 2020, where early or seed ideas could receive investments of up to $25,000, while large scale approaches could be funded up to $2.5 million.

Barata said that towards the end of the pandemic the Centre embarked on a “major” initiative in the hospitality sector to support digital information sharing and retraining, and that there will be an announcement in the coming months on how to apply those lessons to the rest of the country.

“There's some real progress in terms of establishing digital platforms to reach out to displaced workers in industry,” he said.

To date, FSC has invested C$138 million in 135 projects. Barata said the Centre hopes the insights from its work can create “playbooks” for adapting industries after COVID-19.

“When we have no option but to adapt to new things on the ground, it's at times like these that we really need to make sure that we're learning from this, so that next time it comes around, we can approach it confidently,” Barata said.


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