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When the town of Janesville, Wisconsin, lost its General Motors plant in the depths of the 2008 recession, some 2,000 people in a town of just over 60,000 enrolled in the local community college. Nearly half of the attendees never finished their degree, primarily because they could not afford to take even two years away from the workforce. If governments want the millions of COVID-19 unemployed workers to return to the workforce in a stable and long-term manner, they will need to start preparing now, primarily by empowering their educational institutions to embrace new models like microcredentials that have a direct impact on employment. 

In Canada, over 8 million individuals have applied for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit which requires being unemployed or facing a significant loss of work hours.[1] That works out to just under half of the labour force. In the United States, the unemployment rate shot up almost 9 full points, a 242 per cent increase from February to May 2020.[2] Even worse, the unemployment rate does not factor in the millions of Americans who have exited the labour force, temporarily relying on savings and government assistance. Some suggest the true unemployment rate could be as high as 16 per cent.[3] Though a general re-opening of the economy will see many return to work in both countries, the economic impact of even a portion of those workers suffering longer-term employment loss is staggering. For comparison, the 2008 recession peaked at an unemployment rate of 10.6 per cent.[4]

While mass unemployment has hit both countries, the trend of increased automation in the workplace has accelerated it. The reasons to automate production previously centred on efficiency gains and salary savings. Now, the arguments have expanded to include a need for imperviousness to a debilitating virus. It was in that vein that we at the StrategyCorp Institute of Public Policy and Economy recently completed The Future of Ontario’s Workers, a major research paper in collaboration with Colleges Ontario (the provincial association representing Ontario’s 24 public colleges) about COVID-19’s impact of the future of work and on the workers themselves. As part of this work, we not only analyzed the effect of the pandemic on Ontario’s workforce but also provided government with 17 actionable solutions to allow for the rapid re-training and re-skilling of workers by embracing microcredential programs and giving colleges more autonomy over their course programming.

We found that automation is happening in workplaces across North America, and in many cases, without being noticed. When most people think of automation, they think of robots on assembly lines, but the reality is automation can come in many forms. Companies that have embraced work-from-home policies have managed to automate the office. While others like Walmart, who recently announced a C$3.5 billion plan to retrofit its Canadian stores including new merchandise pickup services at 70 per cent of its locations, are well down the path of automating the store itself.[5]

As of March, there was over 14 million square feet of industrial warehousing space being constructed in the Greater Toronto Area alone, compared to just 1.5 million square feet of retail space which is primarily made up of “…expansions to existing malls.”[6] The retail sector is being replaced by e-commerce at lightning speed, creating faster deliveries and happier customers, but fewer workers and prolonged unemployment that will lead to a poorer quality of life for millions without rapid and innovative re-training.

That is the ‘future of work’ problem: better results but fewer employees. When presented by economists and academia, the problem is often pitched as one for governments and industry leaders to solve, rather than for individuals to address in their day-to-day lives. Indeed, while much has been written on what the future workforce will look like one day, less attention has been paid to how individual workers actually make the transition from the work of today to the work of tomorrow. For families with mortgages, medical bills, aging parents, and car payments, going back to school is a luxury. For these reasons, our white paper sought to address the gap between the future of work and the future of workers by paying particular attention to the role that microcredentials – a faster and more focused college education program – could play in preparing the workforce for the new economy.  

Relying on workers to pinpoint and plan for future skill shortages will not work, flexibility and employer-led programming must become the priority, making microcredentials the perfect fit. At their core, microcredential programs are fast, taking as little as six weeks. They are centred on the mastery of specific skill-based content instead of the general applicability of broader understanding and learning.

Individual aptitude tests are applied before entry, allowing students to be placed at the mastery level their skills dictate instead of sitting through useless classes re-learning skills and wasting time.

Most importantly, microcredentials are stackable in nature, allowing a student to progress as far as they wish before re-entering the labour force. This flexibility accommodates the student’s individual financial and personal situations and helps them exit to meet labour demand without losing out on the piece of paper that typically formalizes a college education. A student could master the basic welding skills needed for employment or continue to master skills like welding at heights or underwater. It is their choice, and nothing stops them from returning in the future to continue their progress.

However, embracing microcredentials is a major shift for any academic institution. Microcredentials may be great for experienced workers who need to upskill, but they are less suited to high school graduates looking for a foundational education. Further, implementing them requires unique funding agreements with governments, accepting faculty, union accreditation of skills, and employer-led curriculum developments all in the middle of a pandemic. Luckily for Ontario, their colleges are already world class and employer-focused, with 86 per cent of graduates actively working in the labour force less than six months after graduation.[7] More importantly, they are geographically dispersed with main or satellite campuses in 200 of the province’s 444 municipalities. That geographic coverage of the college network is vital to ensuring a proper economic recovery across the province.

In the United States, community colleges may be best positioned to take on this challenge but may not have the organization or co-ordination needed to implement the change swiftly. Regardless, if what happened in Janesville in 2008 happens again, community colleges will be forced to make a choice. They can offer the same old programming and see more than half of their students drop out before graduation again, or they can embrace innovative new programming that balances the need for employment-focused skills with the time constraints of a post-pandemic life.

This article is based on the author’s new white paper, The Future of Ontario’s Workers, published through the StrategyCorp Institute of Public Policy and Economy found here.


[1]C.D. Howe, “COVID-19 ECONOMIC DASHBOARD,” (July 12, 2020).

[2] RAKESH KOCHHAR, “Unemployment rose higher in three months of COVID-19 than it did in two years of the Great Recession,” Pew Research Center (June 11, 2020).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Thomson Reuters, “Walmart Canada to spend $3.5B to renovate stores for era of COVID-19,” CBC (July 20, 2020).

[6] Canadian Market Analytics Team, “Ontario March Market Report Now Available,” CoStar Group (March 4, 2020).

[7] Colleges Ontario, “2018-19 key performance indicators,” (September 25, 2019).

About the Author

Mitchell Davidson

Mitchell Davidson

Global Fellow;
Executive Director, StrategyCorp Institute of Public Policy and Economy
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Canada Institute

Bound by common geopolitical interests and strong economic and cultural ties, Canada and the United States enjoy the world's most successful bilateral relationship. The Wilson Center's Canada Institute is the only public policy forum in the world dedicated to the full spectrum of Canada-U.S. issues. The Canada Institute is a global leader for policymakers, academics and business leaders to engage in non-partisan, informed dialogue about the current and future state of the relationship.     Read more