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Kevin James Bogan knew it was time to shake up his career.

Like thousands in hospitality, the Toronto-based bar manager was laid off in March as COVID-19 derailed the industry. To pass the time, he got back into drawing – something he’d rarely done since graduating from OCAD University about 15 years ago.

His ambitions snowballed, and within weeks Mr. Bogan enrolled in a 16-month online program at the Think Tank Training Centre, a Vancouver-based school for visual effects and animation. The goal, once he’s finished, is to secure a job in the motion-picture or video-game industries.

“Some people are taking [the pandemic] as an opportunity,” he said. “I tried to rise to that challenge instead of sitting around day to day, doing nothing.”

He’s not alone. Faced with long-term unemployment, and a murky timeline of return, thousands of Canadians have decided there’s no better time than a pandemic to pivot careers, enrolling in education and training that should bolster their résumés in a post-crisis job market.

It’s a typical recession response. Following the financial crisis, postsecondary enrolment in Canada jumped 6 per cent in the 2009-10 academic year, Statistics Canada data show.

This time around, there are early signs of a pandemic bump. Total enrolment last fall was slightly higher than the previous year, driven by part-timers, according to a preliminary survey of nearly 100 universities. And that excludes a number of options, including colleges and some aspects of continuing education programs.

On that front, several universities are seeing a spike of interest. For instance, the Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University in Toronto said its winter intake of adult learners was 10 per cent higher than a year earlier. Data analytics, occupational health and safety, and business management are especially popular programs.

Jenn Miller of Mississauga was part of last fall’s cohort. After close to two decades at global charity World Vision Canada, she was temporarily laid off in March. The furlough dragged on and she volunteered to leave. Eager to move into a leadership position, but lacking experience, Ms. Miller enrolled in a certificate program in non-profit management.

“You need experience in order to do a job, but you can’t get a job until you have that experience,” she said. “Sometimes education can fill a little bit of that gap.”

For others, the pandemic is an opportunity to hit the reset button.

Alex Cleyn of Toronto had mulled a career change for years. Then last spring, she was laid off from a marketing job – the second time that’s happened in her young career. “I was a bit fed up being a marketer, where I’m always expendable when the business doesn’t do well,” she said. “I wanted to do something where I worked for myself.”

With little hesitation, Ms. Cleyn enrolled in the real estate sales agent program at Humber College in Toronto. She was able to rip through her courses and get licensed within months, just as the Toronto property market was running hot. “I’m probably working more than I ever have in my life,” she said, with 14-hour days being typical.

Patrick Rafter of Regina had worked in hospitality for eight years – most recently, as general manager of a restaurant, and co-owner of another. Now, he’s taking online accounting courses through B.C.-based Thompson Rivers University and applying for public-sector positions. He figures the skills acquired in restaurants – from managing payroll to dealing with human-resources issues – will translate well into his next career.

“There’s a lot of learning that goes into starting a small business and being an entrepreneur, and you’re going to take that with you in whatever you do,” he said. “Once I get the [job] interview, I think I’d be able to kill it.”

To be sure, the process of labour reallocation could be lengthy and complicated, given the severity of job losses in the pandemic. As of January, there were roughly 1.9 million people who fit Statistics Canada’s definition of unemployed – largely, that one must be available and searching for work. More than half a million of those were unemployed for more than six months. Another 700,000 people wanted work but weren’t actively looking.

The opportunities that await are fuzzy. The second wave of COVID-19 is battering companies anew and threatening their long-term viability. While business insolvencies have actually declined in the pandemic – thanks to unprecedented fiscal support – the fear is that closings will ramp up as government-funded life support winds down.

Another uncertainty is what training options will look like. In his new mandate letter to Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called for “the largest investment in Canadian history in training for workers,” along with “immediate training to quickly up-skill workers.”

Making a career change doesn’t necessarily mean starting from scratch. That’s part of the guiding philosophy at Palette, a Toronto-based non-profit that works with companies to create skills-training programs – and ultimately, to connect them with job candidates they might otherwise overlook.

In speaking with tech companies, Palette learned they not only needed data scientists and other high-skill positions, but people to sell software. As a result, Palette offers an intensive program in sales training, which has drawn people from the hard-hit retail and hospitality industries. By the end of the program, many of the participating employers have already set up job interviews with trainees.

“Canada has a phenomenal, highly skilled work force,” said AJ Tibando, executive director at Palette. “It’s not necessarily that these skills aren’t out there. It’s that they’re not being found in the right way.”

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