Planning for a post-COVID workforce

Jenna Evans
Economic & Workforce Development
June 02, 2022
Commentators have been making predictions about the “post-COVID” world almost since the beginning of the pandemic. Now, more than two years later, it feels like we might almost be there. Employers and workers have been evolving all along, but as businesses look to get firmly back on their feet, many are struggling to find the workers they need to do the heavy lifting. So what’s behind the shortage and what should business leaders be thinking about as they respond?

To put the labour shortage problem in perspective, Statistics Canada data reported that there were 915,500 unfilled positions in the fourth quarter of 2021. That’s almost a million unfilled jobs – about the population of Ottawa – and a 63% increase in vacancies compared to 2020. In the US, the numbers are even more staggering – as of April 2022, there were 11.4 million job vacanices.

COVID is part of the story, but the truth is the pandemic accelerated a trend that was already well underway. An aging population and rapid technology change have been steadily gnawing away at workforce numbers in many sectors in Canada and around the world for a while now. The moral of the story: too many people are leaving the workforce and the workers replacing them are too few and too unskilled. The global shutdown just made the problem more urgent and more visible.

Frontline service and trades jobs are among the hardest to fill. Between 2020 and 2021, construction-related job vacancies across Canada jumped 150%, even with pay rates increasing by almost 15%. But other sectors are struggling with shortages too—health care, social services, and IT are all reporting challenges filling jobs.

Building a Post-COVID Workforce

It’s convenient to imagine that access to education and training can flow needed workers into workforce vacancies, but it’s more complicated than that. Education and training programs can definitely help with reskilling and upskilling, but only if programs truly match industry needs and only if they are affordable and easy for workers to access.

We also can’t talk about the post-COVID workforce without talking about underlying inequalities. Racialized people are more likely to work in jobs that are low-income and high risk, and women are more likely to be working full-time and having primary responsibility for childcare. People with disabilities continue to be overlooked and underutilized by employers. Calls to address these issues are growing louder, and systemic changes will benefit individuals and the work they support.

The Key to Success: Partnerships and Collaboration

To really work, education programs need to be part of a larger workforce development plan, not delivered as one-off initiatives. A coordinated effort across academic, industry, and government sectors makes all the difference.

Astute leaders who prioritize cross-sector partnerships and collaboration are well positioned, especially as substantial funding programs look to invest in workforce development. One example, New York’s  Workforce Development Initiative (WDI), is investing $175 million throughout the state to support workforce developing projects that are “innovative, creative, and regionally customized.”

There are many examples of economic and development agencies who are leading the way with cross-sector collaboration. In New Brunswick, there is strong momentum in this direction, thanks to initiatives like the Fredericton CREW workforce strategy and targeted programs like the Future of Work.

The Potential Influence of Infrastructure Investments

Alongside funding initiatives that are specifically workforce focused, major capital investments are going to influence the how work is done and the skills workers need to do it. McKinsey estimates that about $130 trillion will flow into capital projects by 2027, with many investments focused on sustainable power, transportation, and other infrastructure.

These investments will also push resources into areas such as battery-powered technologies and transportation, driving up demand for the raw materials that go into them. This trend makes it all the more important to build a strong workforce pipeline to keep the supply chain stable. A recent example of a creative response is the SPARKZ partnership with the United Mine Workers, which will provide much needed labour for a new battery factory in West Virginia.

Other Post-COVID Workforce Realities

Embracing a Holistic Approach

While the worker shortage is a complex, long-term problem, it – along with the pandemic – also presents a rare opportunity to address several challenges at once. Equality, environmental sustainability, and economic prosperity are all part of the workforce puzzle. Taking a holistic approach to workforce development will allow us to advance our goals in all of these dimensions, creating a better future for individuals and the world we live in.

Are you grappling with workforce issues in your business or sector? Looking to connect with partners and build a collaborative approach? Let’s talk!

As the Director of Operations and Team Lead at Stiletto, Jenna has led complex, multi-stakeholder projects and generated high-impact results for research parks, government, and industry clients. Jenna is an MBA candidate specializing in entrepreneurship and technology management.