As the Canadian economy begins to rebound and rebuild after the pandemic, it will be crucial for governments and policy makers to consider the needs of small businesses and for governments and to ensure that they gain access to the skills and talent they need to recover and grow.
That was one of the key messages at a recent webinar called Skills for growth: Strategies for small and medium Canadian businesses, hosted by Pedro Barata, executive director of the Future Skills Centre (FSC). The speakers discussed the challenges to small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and how to address them.
Finding and retaining workers with the right skill sets remains an ongoing challenge for SMEs, and while the pandemic did not create the problem, COVID-19 has made it worse. “For the last five years, the skills gap or skills mismatch has been ranked the number one issue preventing future prosperity among our members,” says Rocco Rossi, president and CEO of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce. “We’re seeing the need for people to train and retrain on a continuous basis, throughout their careers.”
Equity-seeking groups are underrepresented in the workforce and face systemic barriers, meaning they have been harder hit economically by COVID-19. These include Indigeous and racialized communities, women, youth, newcomers, gender-diverse people, persons with disabilities, LGBTQ+ people, older workers, and people lacking post-secondary education.
“Many Black business owners and entrepreneurs have a lack of access to capital, networks and mentorship,” says Nadine Spencer, CEO of the Black Business and Professional Association. “We don’t have the resources or networks to guide us to grow out of the pandemic, so we really need to look at training to prepare Black youth for jobs and propose solutions to make sure training reaches the people that the programs are for.”
The pandemic has greatly sped up the adoption of technology, says Brice Scheschuk, managing partner of Globalive Capital. “We’ve seen massive waves of digital transformation in many sectors, an acceleration of AI, and an increased demand for tech jobs. The innovation that has occurred in the pandemic has meant that everyone is trying to upskill quickly, and tech is probably the sector that has magnified the talent challenge that we’re seeing in North America.” Fostering innovation among entrepreneurs and startups through programs such as MindFrame Connect will help SMEs to succeed.
Rapid technological adoption has also raised other issues. The prevalence of technology has revealed a “digital divide” of uneven access to reliable, high-speed internet and broadband. Many parts of the country lack this access, which hinders businesses and their ability to pivot. Continued advocacy with all levels of government and the private sector is needed to ensure consistent availability of the internet, not just to support business but also to facilitate education and training.
Prosperity will require workforce participation by all groups, and without full participation, Canada will be unable to grow the economy. It will be important to work at matching underrepresented groups with employers, as well as ensuring that training is suited to their varied needs. “We’re working with different partners and learning that it’s not just training but other things such as confidence building and resilience that are needed,” says Wendy Cukier, the webinar moderator and founder of Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute. “It’s important to keep inclusion top of mind, and our training and employment services must meet people where they are.”
Different approaches to education and training must be adopted, including micro credentialing, speeding up skills transfers, and being agile about employer needs. Short courses and e-learning modules such as those in a new training and learning platform can provide resources and tools to bolster skills development within SMEs. A greater appreciation for skilled trades is warranted, along with support for the dignity of all kinds of work, since not everyone will pursue a university degree. Effective training must be tailored to the needs of those it aims to serve, taking into account the needs of equity-seeking groups and embracing approaches that are culturally-sensitive, such as the BACEL program. Training programs should potentially include fundamental skills such as basic communication, financial literacy, interpersonal skills, transferable skills, household budgeting and creating a business plan, since not everyone possesses these skills.
Key stakeholders, educators, private training providers, industry, business and government must avoid building silos and instead work together to support small businesses. “The first step begins with an incredible amount of mutual humility rather than silos of subject matter experts that don’t communicate with one another,” says Rossi. “There’s a need for an interchange of conversations so that these businesses don’t just survive but thrive.”
Watch the full webinar, and check out our other upcoming events.