OTTAWA — When COVID-19 forced the closure of department stores, Mary Junne Boyco and her co-workers lost their jobs, ending more than a decade of working in the service sector.
The 35-year-old lost sleep as anxiety crept in about how to pay the bills and whether they would ever get back to work.
In the ensuing months, she went back to school to upgrade her skills. She started looking for work outside the service sector, which a year into the pandemic still has the longest way back to pre-crisis employment levels.
Boyco’s path out of the service sector is one that could be replicated through dozens of new skills training programs being unveiled through the federally backed Future Skills Centre to help workers mitigate some of the pandemic’s long-term impacts.
What COVID-19 has done is push the pedal down on shifts already underway in the economy, particularly as companies find ways to connect digitally with customers, and use technology to boost output while not adding to the bottom line.
The centre’s executive director, Pedro Barata, said the programs aim to rethink how to help workers most affected by the pandemic adapt to a shifting labour market.
Among the targeted workers for the training programs are visible minority women, Indigenous people, newcomers and youth.
“If we just stick with the current models … we’re going to leave a whole lot of people behind,” Barata said in an interview.
“That’s not good for people themselves, but it’s also not good for our economy and frankly our society.”
Barata said he expects the federal Liberal government’s April 19 budget to outline a plan for workers to upgrade their skills and keep changing alongside businesses.
As of February, the workforce was 599,100 jobs short of where it was in February of last year, or 3.1 per cent below pre-pandemic levels. Statistics Canada will provide job figures for March on Friday.
Labour and business leaders generally agree that skills training should be high on the agenda to help workers get back into the labour market, but too few have strategies to do that, Barata said.
Without a wider view of training, it may take longer for workers displaced by COVID-19 to find new jobs.
Boyco said she went back to school and did a professional certificate course in human resources, seeing it as possible career path with more security. She added that she believed upgrading her skills has made them more transferable in the workforce.
“I began seeking employment outside of the service sector, or something that could provide like a stable future career and protect me from the impact of the new outbreaks,” Boyco said. “From my point of view, that’s what I’ve been doing, and that’s what I did.”
The Toronto-based Future Skills Centre plans to fund 64 projects to the tune of $32 million to help workers affected by the pandemic upgrade or develop new skills. The organization is funded by the federal government’s Future Skills Program.
One of those programs is aimed at taking 120 women who are unemployed service workers in Ontario, like Boyco, and help them move to high-growth sectors like technology, finance, or health care by building new or reapplying existing skills.