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Expect the service industry, and its workers, to experience fundamental changes over the next decade, a new study says.Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press

COVID-19 is fundamentally reshaping the way we work, creating potential for major changes to employment over the next decade that could spur new types of skills, technology and jobs, according to a new study by the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship at Ryerson University.

Trends like increasing automation could create new job opportunities for both low-skilled and high-skilled workers. The popularity of remote work may revive the prospects of small town Canada. At the same time, the stresses of life under lockdown could reignite support for broad social policies that tackle inequality and improve work-life balance, the researchers said.

Here are five trends could alter the Canadian labour market:

Rural revival

With nearly 40 per cent of Canadians working from home during the pandemic, record numbers of workers have left cities for smaller towns and cheaper locales.

Should the popularity of remote work continue, it could create a population boom in parts of rural Canada, which is now home to less than a fifth of Canada’s population. If remote workers choose to permanently move out of major urban areas, that could draw service jobs to small towns, revitalizing shuttered Main Streets with new shops and restaurants, the researchers said.

The “buy local” movement that gained steam in response to global supply-chain breakdowns early in the pandemic could also benefit small towns. Manufacturers may consider reshoring manufacturing jobs from overseas and locating them in less-expensive parts of the country. Meanwhile, lasting concerns about international travel could encourage Canadians to vacation closer to home, fuelling tourism jobs in rural areas.

Strengthen the social contract

Pandemic lockdowns have disproportionately affected service jobs in industries that employ large numbers of women and people of colour, highlighting long-standing problems with racial and gender inequality. That has sparked support for social programs that would have seemed controversial only a few years ago.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pledged to create a national child care program. Some business groups have called on provinces to mandate paid sick leave, while more than half of Canadians support the idea of a four-day work week, the researchers said.

Programs like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit are driving enthusiasm for Universal Basic Income, a guaranteed minimum income paid to all residents regardless of job status. “This was something that was quite niche in conversations a couple of years ago,” said Jessica Thornton, the report’s co-author. “And now I feel like most Canadians have heard the term and understand what universal basic income might look like.”

The shift to a virtual workplace

Silicon Valley was in the midst of a major backlash before COVID-19 as workers unplugged from social media and parents looked to limit children’s screen time. These days, much of work, school and social life happens online. But the sudden shift from in-person to virtual meetings has shown the limits of the e-mail, chat and video-conferencing programs we use to stay connected.

That could spur the creation of new and better tools for online collaboration, the researchers said. Immersive technologies like virtual and augmented reality could find their way into the workplace, helping to recreate the kind of spontaneous conversations that once happened around the water cooler. Employers of the future may even need to compete for talent based on their remote work cultures and virtual support systems, researchers said.

COVID-19 could destroy some jobs – and create new ones

The economic recovery from COVID-19 is likely to be no different than past recessions, which have tended to accelerate the pace of automation in the workplace.

But automation doesn’t necessarily have to be a job-killer, the researchers found. The shift of work and school online could create new jobs for engineers working on virtual reality and artificial intelligence applications. Employers in retail, food service and manufacturing may look for workers who understand how to use more complex computerized equipment.

Separately, companies that choose to reopen their offices may step up their cleaning processes to protect against infections, driving demand for janitorial staff. Employers may also hire experts in emergency preparedness and mental health to plan for future pandemics.

In the past, younger workers tended to idolize entrepreneurs. But the pandemic may instead inspire more students to choose careers in health care, Ms. Thornton said.

Employers may need more specialized skills – and could be willing to train workers

COVID-19 has hit small businesses hard, while benefiting larger corporations in industries like financial services and e-commerce. That trend could put big companies in the driver’s seat when it comes to the future of postsecondary education.

Larger organizations tend to require more specialized skills than smaller firms, fuelling demand for things like micro-credentials – short-term courses that focus on learning a single skill.

Some employers are launching their own training programs. Ms. Thornton pointed to Alphabet Inc.’s Google, which last year began offering certificates in IT support and data analytics that take as little as six weeks to complete.

Such trends could force Canada’s colleges and universities to rethink their multiyear degrees and diplomas. “The future of Canada’s postsecondary institutions will be very reliant on their ability to make those connections so that there’s still a value proposition for students of why you should do that and not just do Google’s six-week program.” Ms. Thornton said.

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