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Linda Nazareth is host of the Work and the Future podcast and senior fellow for economics and population change at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa

We need a “Reskilling Revolution,” says the World Economic Forum (WEF), and few could disagree, although there did not seem to be a hurry to do much about it. That was back in January of this year, a lifetime ago, when the pandemic was something that had to do with bats in China and nothing to do with North American labour markets. Flash forward a few months and a huge number of unemployed suggest that the need for reskilling is more intense than the WEF could have dreamed. Question is, will the pandemic mean it gets put off even further, or will it accelerate it instead?

“Reskilling” is something that sounds like a buzzword but is actually a requirement if we plan to have a future where a lot of would-be workers do not get left behind. We know we are moving into a period where the jobs in demand will change rapidly, as will the requirements of the jobs that remain. Research by the WEF, detailed in the Harvard Business Review, finds that on average 42 per cent of the “core skills” within job roles will change by 2022. That is a very short timeline, so we can only imagine what the changes will be further in the future.

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The question of who should pay for reskilling is a thorny one. For individual companies, the temptation is always to let go of workers whose skills are no longer in demand and replace them with those whose skills are. That does not always happen. AT&T is often given as the gold standard of a company who decided to do a massive reskilling program rather than go with a fire-and-hire strategy, ultimately retraining 18,000 employees. Prepandemic, other companies including Amazon and Disney had also pledged to create their own plans. When the skills mismatch is in the broader economy though, the focus usually turns to government to handle. Efforts in Canada and elsewhere have been arguably languid at best, and have given us a situation where we frequently hear of employers begging for workers, even at times and in regions where unemployment is high.

With the pandemic, unemployment is very high indeed. In February, at 3.5 per cent and 5.5 per cent respectively, unemployment rates in Canada and the United States were at generational lows and worker shortages were everywhere. As of May, those rates had spiked up to 13.3 per cent and 13.7 per cent, and although many worker shortages had disappeared, not all had done so. In the medical field, to take an obvious example, the pandemic meant that there were still clear shortages of doctors, nurses and other medical personnel.

Of course, it is not like you can take an unemployed waiter and train him to be a doctor in a few weeks, no matter who pays for it. But even if you cannot close that gap, maybe you can close others, and doing so would be to the benefit of all concerned. That seems to be the case in Sweden, where the pandemic kick-started a retraining program where business as well as government had a role.

There the efforts started in mid-March, when the layoffs also started. Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) was at the apex of it: When forced to furlough 90 per cent of their cabin staff, they decided to start up a short retraining program that reskilled the laid off workers to support hospital staff. The effort was a collective one and involved other companies as well as a Swedish university.

Ultimately, a 3½ day training program for an “assistant nurse” was designed and offered to 1,100 cabin staff. Hundreds applied and 30 were put into a pilot project, followed by another 300 trainees. An additional training project then trained a further 200 workers, many from the hospitality sector, to work in Swedish nursing homes. It went on from there, with laid-off workers trained to work in reopened schools, sometimes covering classrooms (because teachers are required to stay home if they had any signs of illness) or doing administrative tasks.

Reskilling in this way would be challenging in a North American context. You can easily imagine a chorus of “you can’t do that,” because teachers or nurses or whoever have special skills, and using any support staff who has been quickly trained is bound to end in disaster. Maybe. Or maybe it is something that can work well in Sweden, with its history of co-operation between business, labour and government, but not in North America where our history is very different. Then again, maybe it is akin to wartime, when extraordinary things take place, but it is business as usual after the fact. And yet, as in war the pandemic is teaching us that many things, including rapid reskilling, can be done if there is a will to do them. In any case, Sweden’s work force is now more skilled, in more things, and more flexible than it was before.

Of course, reskilling programs, whether for pandemic needs or the postpandemic world, are expensive and at a time when everyone’s budgets are lean this may not be the time to implement them. Then again, extending income support programs to get us through the next months is expensive, too, to say nothing of the cost of having a swath of long-term unemployed in the post-COVID years. Given that, perhaps we should think hard about whether the pandemic can jump-start us to a place where reskilling becomes much more than a buzzword.

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