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After 17 years making costumes at Stratford Festival, Monica Berg lost her job last spring when the pandemic shut down theatres. She was stunned, but also fearful for her family’s finances. Her $45,000 yearly earnings were half of the family’s income and around the same time, her husband’s photography business was declared non-essential and shuttered.

“We went about three weeks thinking, ‘What are we going to do?’ " she recalls. The family reduced their expenses as much as possible and waited. Fortunately, the real estate industry reopened quickly and her husband was able to resume photographing homes for sale.

Ms. Berg, 47, qualified for the federal wage subsidy, which paid her $2,700 a month – 75 per cent of her prepandemic wage – until early August; then she got $2,000 a month from CERB until the program ended in September. Now her contribution to family finances comes from employment insurance, which amounts to half of her original pay.

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The family has a tenant in its home that covers half of the mortgage, and the cost of living in Stratford is fairly reasonable, she says. But she’s worried about her future, and not sure she can parlay her sewing skills to a job that will pay enough without retraining.

In March and April, three million Canadian workers lost their jobs, and 2.5 million more saw reduced hours, according to Statistics Canada. By the end of September, the market had recouped about 76 per cent of those jobs, leaving about 720,000 to go. The gains blew past forecasts, but economists warn another slowdown could come as lockdowns intensify.

Toronto-based financial planner Shannon Lee Simmons says some of her clients are trying to decide whether going back to school while unemployed makes financial sense. In her mind, using one industry’s downtime to retrain for another can help workers diversify their income streams, leading to more security down the road.

Even at a time when money is tight, it can be worth borrowing to train for something with better earnings potential, she says. “Putting money in retraining is paying yourself first,” she says, noting she’s seeing this most among people who used to work around crowds, such as at weddings, sports events and in the arts.

“Our biggest asset is our future cash flow. It has nothing to do with what we currently have in the bank. … If you don’t know if your industry will look the same in the next three to five years, diversifying your income is a great way to provide some financial security and some emotional well-being.”

While being unemployed is often stressful, Ms. Simmons says some anguish can be alleviated by focusing on things one can control, such as applying for government assistance and creating a budget. But while many advisers will tell clients to cut back, she suggests “taking a soft, kind look at your expenses,” while remembering changes made now don’t have to be permanent.

“A lot of people are already living hand-to-mouth. … Sometimes there’s nothing that can go. In an emergency, cutting creature comforts seems like it would affect mental health.”

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She says her clients who are retraining are looking at programs or certificates that take a year or less, and cost between $2,000 and $6,000.

Ms. Berg is now taking a six-week Conestoga College course called College Bound, which helps participants identify a suitable career path, discover financial-aid options and pinpoint skills that could be applied to a new industry. She’s thinking about bookkeeping or carpentry, where she could apply many of her skills: “Measuring, cutting, building.”

She says just thinking about school is an exercise in hope: “Hope that even if I have to get back into the work force [in the short term, at lower pay], that I can be working towards a new career at the same time.”

Candy Ho, assistant professor in integrative career and capstone learning at the University of the Fraser Valley, advises potential career-changers to chart a path with both short- and long-term gains. That way, if the original industry bounces back sooner than expected, students could return to work knowing they have fall-back credentials, without having to commit to a four-year program all at once.

“There is a big trend toward micro-credentials,” she said, referring to short courses that provide a new skill, or form building blocks to a certificate or degree. “Pursuing these micro-credentials – class by class, module by module – gives people the flexibility to work on something while tracking … what’s going on in the [pandemic].”

In addition to employment insurance or the Canada Recovery Benefit, which launched Oct. 12, Ms. Ho recommends people seek employment help from unions or professional associations of which they are members. There is often career mentorship available from postsecondary alumni associations, she says, noting graduates should also check in with their school’s career centre, as some also serve alumni.

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For those who are looking to retrain, it’s worth contacting the desired school’s financial-aid office. “There is often untapped money people don’t know they could be applying [for],” she said.

Every province and territory offers job-retraining programs and funding, which can be accessed through provincial employment agencies and affiliated local career centres. For example, in early October, Ontario announced $75-million to help apprentices cover living expenses.

Finally, there is the Canada Training Benefit, announced in the 2019 federal budget – but it’s a tax credit, not cash upfront. The credit accumulates at $250 a year, up to a lifetime limit of $5,000, and can be used to refund up to half of a course’s cost. But because it just started last year, eligible workers will have banked only $250 to support schooling undertaken this year.

“Time is not on your side if you are out of work and need it right away,” Ms. Ho said.

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