The GM announcement made the future of work personal

 Dec 5, 2018 11:00 AM

Everyone knows that the world of work is changing. We feel it when we talk with friends and neighbours about our own careers and we hear it on the news, in podcasts and in the media.

In May 2017, Pew Research Center polled working adults across the United States, asking how likely they believed specific jobs would be replaced by automation within their lifetime. They found that, while people believed certain jobs may be more at risk than others, their own job was relatively safe. That is, unless they or a close family member has already been impacted by a layoff, reorganization, reduction of hours or shift in duties. Intellectually, we know that work is changing but do not personally connect or engage in considering the impact until something makes it personal.

The recent GM announcement to close the Oshawa plant in Ontario certainly made the conversation about employment, training, careers and work personal for those living in south-western Ontario. Other groups of workers who have experienced recent employment shocks, such as those in the oil sector, expressed frustration – “You see? We’ve been telling you. Canada, we have a problem.”

Indeed, big events shine a spotlight that exposes all the various cracks and issues. It can make everything feel out of the control, ignored or at risk. We can hardly be surprised when anxiety, confusion, frustration and anger are expressed.

Whose voices did we hear in response to the GM announcement?

In the seven days following the announcement, average Canadians across the province started hearing a variety of voices – all expressing concern and all talking about slightly different issues, needs, and risks.

  1. Individual workers and families were seen reeling from the announcement. Concerned about their future, the impact on their co-workers and what the action will mean for their families, they expressed betrayal, fear and uncertainty.
  2. Career practitioners and employment specialists shared advice, resources and guidance to those impacted. In mainstream media as well as on social media, articles and interviews abounded that offered help and hope, encouraging those impacted to take a breath, seek support and prepare to take control of their own future.
  3. Politicians, from municipal to federal, commented on risks and impacts to regional economies. As the days went on, some began to demonstrate ways that the economy might weather these changes. Others remained resigned and uncertain about the way forward.
  4. Labour leaders from a variety of unions and associations presented a variety of perspectives. Some attacked the employer for its decision, timing and communication strategy. Others provided context and data about related policies and agreements that were being blamed for the decision.
  5. Company officials remained steadfast and consistent, reinforcing the business rationale for the decision while foreshadowing more changes to come.
  6. Think tanks and pundits highlighted the many different policy and systemic areas that are broken or unready for the future. These discussions included electric vehicle technology and environmental policy, education gaps in preparing the future (or even the current) workforce, access to relevant, lifelong employment and career supports and social benefits models to replace/augment capitalism.

At Challenge Factory we are hosting a National Conversation on the Future of Work. We know that the discussion includes everyone – not just those in positions to set policy or be interviewed in the media. So, in the past week, in addition to the articles or interviews broadcasted that include the players listed above, I have been focusing on the comments, retweets and reactions from everyday Canadians.

The underlying theme of the various stories carried in the last week reflect a view that we are not ready. Our workers aren’t ready for this type of change – even though it had been predicted. Our local economies are not ready for shifting labour and employment. Our training and employment support programs are not ready for life-long, relevant and innovative workplace learning. Our country is not ready for the future it wants to lead.

Instead of “are we ready?” let’s focus on triage and treatment

I think the question of readiness bundles the many complex issues and challenges together in a way that can lead to systemic policy paralysis and individual feelings of hopelessness. If, as reported, everything is broken, where do we start?

Last year I wrote about how workforce issues can be considered either acute (emergency room worthy) or chronic (on-going serious issues but not immediately life-threatening). Anyone living with a chronic illness knows that healthy living can occur even with a need for on-going treatment and care. Our workforce and its related employment, education and training models have chronic health conditions.  One-time treatments are not enough. Systems we address at one point in time may be affected by changes somewhere else later and need revisiting. We need an on-going treatment plan that provides stability, not continual crisis response, to get from where we are now to 2030 and beyond.

It’s not easy. It needs smart triage and teams of specialists who are ready to work together, with the systems and tools to be able to share information quickly and with context. It needs leaders who understand that in times of emergencies the first job is to provide stability and to co-ordinate care so that the patient, our workforce, can move from imminent crises to longer-term protocols.

The key to this type of approach is to recognize that not everything is urgent even if everything is broken. A patient suffering a stroke, with diabetes, a broken leg and a serious skin rash will not stay in the emergency room until all these conditions are resolved.

We can provide urgent response to those impacted by the GM announcement and allocate resources, leadership and strategies to ensure long term sustainable workforce supports for all Canadians.

Where is progress being made that is not necessarily reported in your newsfeed?

Key players across the complex systems that care about workers know this is the case. It is true, there are many detailed reports indicating where Canada is lagging in its focus on employment, retraining, post-secondary literacy attainment and other indicators. For some, these reports are signs of failure. To me, the fact that we have data specifically identifying our weaknesses is far better than the position we were in even five years ago.  Despite the plethora of media and social media attention on what’s broken, we know that there is progress being made. I see it in my work, everyday, and want to share just four of many examples of initiatives that counterbalance the commonly expressed view that no action is being taken in Canada.

  1. Policy makers focused on action: Last summer, policy makers, educational institutions and private sector leaders came together at the Queen’s International Symposium on Social Policy. The conference, entitled: “The Future of Work: What do we do?” focused on translating research into action imperatives to align efforts across governmental bodies. I attended and heard industry leaders and policy makers debate key initiatives, listen to each other and learn from each other. It was a good discussion that now has to fulfil on the promise of the conference title – moving from ideas to action.
  2. Career development sector expanding its reach and impact: CERIC, a Canadian provider of career development research, education and programs, hosts the largest conference for career and employment practitioners every year. At the Cannexus 2019 conference a new stream has been added to focus specifically on the future of work from a workforce development lens.
  3. Industry associations and member companies gathering good data: Recently, industries, such as the insurance industry, have completed new types of analysis to understand and diagnose their own sector. Focus has increased to bring private sector employers together to understand the impact corporate decisions will have on the workforce and identify collective strategies to mitigate risks and assist with change.
  4. Federal  government investment: Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) has committed support to new and innovative approaches identify the skills employers will need now and in the future, share information and inform future investments and programming. The Future Skills Centre and Council has the mandate to ensure we get better at triage for the acute issues while also creating the framework and conditions for a chronic, long-term supportive approach to emerge that will help treat our workforce challenges between now and 2030 and beyond.

Canada is not alone in its focus on this topic. There are other countries ahead of us in how they are preparing for the changes that lie ahead. The coming 2019 International Symposium on Career Development and Public Policy in Norway is a prime example. As a member of Team Canada, I, along with my colleagues, will share Canada’s successes, challenges, innovative ideas and hypotheses with the opportunity to get feedback and reaction from around the world.

Yes, there is work underway at every level and, yet, there remains hard work ahead.

Action steps everyone can take

The initiatives listed above are evidence that political, policy, academic, industry and company leaders are actively working on the challenges of a shifting workforce. Missing from the list are individual workers. Each of us can take personal action to ensure we are readying ourselves and future-proofing our own careers. If you are unsure where to start, I recommend considering these questions:

  1. How you are developing your own skills and advancing your own knowledge and career? When was the last time you learned something new? How familiar are you with the various education, training, retraining and entrepreneurship support programs available to you in your local community and online? If you aren’t sure where to start, I recommend visiting a branch of your local public library and asking what programs and resources they offer and are aware of.
  2. How critical are you of what you read and see in the media – especially social media. Do you search out a variety of views on any topic – or find organizations that share a variety of perspectives. Comments and retweets may be like the town square, with lots of voices. Where can you learn who is working to address the specific concerns you have. I guarantee that someone is. How can you join them – or at least learn what they are doing?
  3. When you do seek out reskilling or training (for yourself and/or your employees) consider how future-focused the provider is. If you work with traditional providers, you will reinforce that you want traditional approaches – even as you lament how our education and training systems are out of date. By choosing programs and partners that demonstrate they recognize today’s complexity and are participating in creating solutions, you will reinforce what we want more of in the market.

All of us – every single Canadian – has a role to play in shaping the kind of future we want. Not everyone sets national or provincial policy. Not everyone runs a company. But we all make choices about how we focus on our own careers, when we upgrade our skills, how we let others know we have questions or that we need help. No one is passive in this shift to the future and unless you let it – it isn’t something that happens to you. You are a part of its creation.




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