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Employer-sponsored skills training vital in Canada’s changing workforce landscape

In Canada, employer-sponsored training is crucial to ensuring that employees have the necessary skills and knowledge to meet the demands of a constantly-evolving job market.

In comparison to other countries, Canada has a unique labour market that is dominated by small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) — 97.9 per cent of Canadian employers are small businesses and 1.9 per cent are medium-sized businesses. However, many of these enterprises struggle to keep up with the training needs of their current employees. Our latest report, Employer-sponsored skills training: A picture of skills training opportunities provided by Canadian employers, in collaboration with the Labour Market Information Council and Shift Insights, suggests that there is insufficient regular, reliable data to truly understand how employers in Canada, especially SMEs, are sponsoring training for their employees. However, the report did uncover some useful insights that can help inform our understanding of training in Canada. 

In particular, the report contains three important conclusions. It reveals that employer-sponsored training in Canada is:

  1. Limited
  2. Workplace-focused and concentrated
  3. Inequitably distributed.

One of the main reasons SMEs struggle to invest in employee training is the cost. When compared with international peers, the resources SMEs spend on training are low. Limited budgets mean that SMEs must consider the return on investment for any training they sponsor or provide for their employees. Investing in training requires a significant financial commitment, particularly for highly specialized or technical skills. And, because of limited resources, many SMEs focus only on sponsoring training that responds to their immediate needs. In addition to financial constraints, SMEs frequently face challenges in allowing their employees time for training and upskilling. This predicament often leaves SMEs with the choice of losing valuable employee time or requiring their workers to pursue training outside of regular work hours, thus introducing further difficulties. These considerations can render SMEs hesitant to invest in training programs that are not workplace-focused even if this learning would address changes in the market, gaps in skills, and technology adoption. Thus, employees in smaller firms are less likely to receive employer-sponsored training than those in larger organizations. 

Another challenge is the inequity in training distribution. According to our research and that of Statistics Canada, there are training distribution disparities by sector. SMEs operating in sectors that typically have access to greater capital, such as information technology, are more likely to provide employer-sponsored training. We also observe these inequities across the education levels of individual employees: people with higher levels of education; those in professional, scientific, and technological jobs; those in their prime working years; and those in full-time, permanent positions are more likely to receive training. 

On the subject of diversity in access to training, we learned via our Survey on Employment and Skills that men (24%) are on average more likely to have pursued training while taking time off work than women (19%). And, although recent immigrants are more likely to access training, as are racialized workers, both of these groups are also less likely to have their training paid for or sponsored by their employers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these challenges, while also making it more pertinent for employers to invest in training. For example, many employers had to pivot to providing digital services and even offering digital products as a result of the pandemic. It became urgent for those organizations that made this shift to provide training or provisions for training to their employees in order to keep up. Another perspective to consider is that digital training has become far more accessible now than ever before, as a result of the pandemic. This shift has, in turn, changed many employees’ attitudes about having greater access to employer-sponsored training and increased opportunities for employer-sponsored training. 

It is clear that the importance of adapting to changing circumstances has made training and upskilling in Canada more critical than ever. Nevertheless, the current research suggests an unclear data landscape that lacks reliable, sizable sources of recent data on the subject matter. Recently, FSC has partnered with the Ontario Chamber of Commerce to launch the creation of a digital training platform to which over 200 private companies and 50 chambers of commerce would have access. And while we expect to have reliable data that attempts to answer some of the questions we’ve raised above, we need more if we are to address the issue of policy solutions to ensure more training for Canada’s workforce. It is essential that we invest in the data architecture that would help paint a more current picture of employer-sponsored training in Canada. 

Dr. Nancy Adossi is a Senior Bilingual Policy Analyst with the Future Skills Centre. 

The views, thoughts and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint, official policy or position of the Future Skills Centre or any of its staff members or consortium partners.