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A woman walks past a help wanted sign in Ottawa, on Nov. 2, 2017.

CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

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 precrisis employment levels.

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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 under way 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.

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As of February, the work force 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 work force.

“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.

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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.

The program, partially overseen by The Career Foundation, is also part of a broader discussion to see where growing industries are heading and what skills employers will need, said Evelyn Akselrod, the foundation’s vice-president of strategic development, community and corporate partnerships.

“We could get pillars, big pieces that we could then break down and look at the skill sets related to those changes,” she said.

“It’s about looking at the future and reading the trends.”

It’s also about helping people buy in to the idea of lifelong learning, she added.

The Liberals’ last budget, in 2019, outlined such a plan to give workers paid time off and a new benefit to save up for qualifying training programs.

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The pandemic delayed the rollout of the benefit.

At a parliamentary committee last month, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough said the government is taking a second look at the Canada Training Benefit and how it might have to change in light of the past 12 months.

“We’re right now working with stakeholders to understand the best way to support workers including what the training benefit could do for broader number of Canadians,” Qualtrough said, noting it was aimed at those who had jobs and wanted time off to improve their skills.

The Future Skills Centre is also slated to launch an online career search tool on Thursday alongside the Conference Board of Canada.

Known as OpportuNext, it looks through a database of 13 billion job characteristics to help workers see what jobs require similar skills.

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