The Interview

Pedro Barata has a $375-million plan to retrain workers in every sector of Canada’s economy

Pedro Barata Jenna Muirhead

Pedro Barata takes the helm of the Future Skills Centre in September, filling the executive director role that’s been vacant since the organization launched in February. 

Barata is tasked with closing Canada’s skills gap, which is no small feat. Despite record job growth of late, 20 per cent of Canadians are doing precarious work, contributing to low wages and widening income inequality.

In its seven months, the government-funded Future Skills Centre has pledged $19 million—of its $375-million total budget—for 16 pilot projects that will study underemployment and test mid-career training programs.

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Talking Point

In an interview with The Logic, Pedro Barata, the incoming executive director of the Future Skills Centre, discussed how he plans to close the gap between the skills Canadians have and those the labour market needs. Barata said he can get the centre moving, pointing to his tenure as executive vice-president of the United Way as evidence, where he worked on improving social and economic conditions for precariously employed people.

Meanwhile, the centre doesn’t expect to have its inaugural board in place until 2020, though it has an interim one. Barata is confident he can get the Ryerson University-based centre—whose partners include the Conference Board of Canada, an economic think tank, and Blueprint, a policy research organization—moving, and points to his tenure at United Way as proof of that. As a senior vice-president at the charity, he worked with public and private partners on ways to improve social and economic conditions for precariously employed people in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). 

In an interview with The Logic, Barata discussed the centre’s approach for retraining oil-sector workers and auto manufacturers, his plan to build Future Skills hubs in regions across the country and how the university-run organization can stay ahead of the rapidly changing labour market.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What role do you see the Future Skills Centre playing in addressing the changing labour market?

If we think about all the things that are changing in the labour market—shifting industries, shifting employer needs, the rise of precarious employment—what you see is that people are working harder than ever, but they’re having a hard time through these transitions. And, what is clear—and I know this from firsthand experience—is people, businesses, academic institutions, labour and community groups: they’re not sitting on their hands just watching this happen. Across the country, there are many great ideas, there are lots of pilots, lots of approaches that are modelling how we need to work together differently. So, the job of the Future Skills Centre is to find these promising ideas, to invest in their growth and evaluation and make sure that they’re not exceptional one-offs, but that they actually become blueprints for breaking silos and working together differently. 

Is the organization designed, then, to identify existing programs and put resources behind them, or to create entirely new programs to address the problem? 

Both. If you look at the 16 innovation projects that have received Future Skills Centre funding, all of those are new or emerging partnerships across the country and across a variety of sectors and industries. They’re looking at shifts in the auto sector, shifts in the oil industry, shifts in the trucking industry. From a funding perspective, it’s about finding people and sectors doing things right, providing them with that additional momentum—a new way of trying to do training and skills development and assessing people—while also adding on really good evaluation. We are diving deep into what it is that we’re learning [through the projects] … and then creating a network that includes practitioners, academics, thought leaders, policymakers, service deliverers on the ground that are actually plugged into the learning that’s happening so that it doesn’t just sit on the proverbial shelf. 

What attracted you to this role and the Future Skills Centre? 

The shifting labour market is a defining issue of our times. How we react as a society can shape whether we can achieve inclusive prosperity, or whether we go down the path of just more inequality, which unfortunately seems to be the track that we’re on. I have seen firsthand through my experience at United Way that it is possible to collaborate across sectors and get wins that are good for business, good for communities and good for people who are trying to build a good life. I see that the Future Skills Centre puts a premium on collaboration. If you look at the projects that have been funded to date, there’s an understanding that this challenge around the changing economy, shifting labour force—there’s no one sector that’s going to find a solution. It really takes all sectors working together if we’re going to come up with solutions that are sustainable and good for all of us. 

It’s also really important that the centre is committed to equity. At least half of the funding for the projects the centre will be implementing have to focus on disadvantaged groups who have been much more impacted by the shifting labour market and growing income inequality.

How we react as a society can shape whether we can achieve inclusive prosperity, or whether we go down the path of just more inequality, which unfortunately seems to be the track that we're on.

The Future Skills Centre is based in Toronto, as are its partners Blueprint and the Conference Board of Canada. A number of academics and entrepreneurs have raised concerns that the organization won’t be able to address the regional differences in labour market challenges. How do you respond to that?  

That’s firmly on our radar screen, to ensure that this is truly a pan-Canadian organization. The current pilot projects are located in 12 provinces and territories. We are also ensuring that, on the advisory board, there is regional representation from right across the country. The interim advisory board, for example, has representatives from all jurisdictions, and the inaugural board, which is right now being recruited, will have pan-Canadian representation. That’s table stakes to the work we need to do.

We will also be setting up hubs across the country, ensuring that there is Future Skills Centre presence across Canada and every region, and that we have people on the ground who become part of an ecosystem of identifying good ideas, evaluating those ideas and sharing and discussing those ideas across the country.  

The labour market is changing quickly, and so are in-demand skills. The Future Skills Centre is meant to stay ahead of those changes. What makes the government-funded, university-run organization—two institutions not known for moving fast—suited to solve that problem? 

I would say first that this is a true tripartite partnership between Ryerson University, Conference Board of Canada and Blueprint. I would also say that the centre should be judged according to its actions: it formally launched five months ago in February, and in that very short period of time, it’s had two funding calls, it’s allocated $19 million dollars to 16 projects. We’ve already engaged with 12 provincial and territorial groups on how we’re going to work together. Hundreds of stakeholders have already heard from us. An office has been set up; there are permanent staff that’s been hired. I think the record to date shows that we’ve made pretty tremendous progress in a short period of time, and we don’t plan on letting up anytime soon.

What’s at stake—economically, societally—by not responding quickly to the changing labour market? 

One of the things that we’re already seeing is the impact of so-called jobs without people and people without jobs is having. This puts stress on employers and their ability to grow. We’ve documented how this dynamic of growing precarious employment and people not being able to get on track in terms of their career, how that has a tremendous impact on their family life, on their personal well-being, on their mental health.

One of the projects the organization is piloting addresses “learner shock.” Can you tell me what that’s about and why it’s a priority for the organization? 

Many of us know someone who’s been working the same job or in the same sector for a couple of decades, and all of a sudden finds themself in a situation where that job is gone, and they have to find a new career. There’s a side of that which is very technical—what am I interested in, what skills do I need and where do I go to get those skills? But there’s another side to that, which is the psycho-emotional shock of dealing with the fact that you’ve been pretty successful at doing the same thing for two or three or four decades, and all of a sudden, you are going to have to put yourself on a new career path. That creates a whole lot of anxiety about whether or not you’re going to succeed. This can be a barrier to completing a training program, never mind getting into a new job and making that transition. We want to understand what that learner shock is all about and how it impacts some populations differently, like Indigenous populations in this project that the University of Manitoba is leading. It’s a very foundational project. What we will get out of it is new insights into these factors that lead to learner shock, and how we can implement strategies that recognized that people need hard technical skills, but they also need to be in learning mode. And if employers and organizations are going to invest in training, upskilling, reskilling their employees, just making this part of the conversation. 

I understand mid-career training, or reskilling, to be a core mandate of the Future Skills Centre. How is the organization addressing that? 

We have one project focused on the recent shifts in the auto sector in the GTA, which is experiencing huge disruption. In places like Kitchener-Waterloo, what’s happening is you’re seeing some people lose their jobs in the auto sector, but at the same time, you’re also seeing a shortage of experienced skilled workers to fill job vacancies in mould-making. And so, a collaborative called the Work-Based Learning Consortium is partnering with Canadian Association of Mold Makers to try and bridge this gap, and to recognize that there is a pool of workers that have manufacturing skills that have competencies around working in that environment who could be upskilled or reskilled to move to a different industry, or perhaps a different geography. 

Another example: in Alberta, we’re seeing the oil and energy sector—traditionally one of the backbones of the local economy—shifting, and with it, a lot of jobs being lost. At the same time, the IT sector and the technology and digital sector in Calgary is growing, which are facing labour shortages when it comes to engineering skills. There’s a collaborative in Calgary looking at how you can repurpose some of the professional employees in the energy sector to the digital tech sector. That pilot involves a collaboration between the private-sector employers looking to hire, and post-secondary institutions that can provide some of that retraining to together co-design how you take more traditional engineering skills from oil and gas and upskill that to digital tech. 

What are your priorities for the organization when you start in September? 

Building relationships with key partners is job one. There’s a federal government and provincial and territorial governments that are really crucial to the long-term success on an initiative like this. There are private-sector partners who’ve been very much engaged in the lead-up to the creation of the Future Skills Centre, and who have already reached out and have some great ideas about what the private sector role might be. Labour leaders … already feature prominently in some of our pilot projects and, of course, academia and research. 

What private sector partners have you or members of the organization engaged with? 

I will say that I have heard from big financial institutions in Canada who obviously have a huge stake in workforce-development issues, and who are thinking about how the financial-services sector—a huge part of the backbone of our economy—really plays a role in this. Some big management companies are involved in some of the thought leadership around how is it that we can become more predictive, and how is it that we can learn more about future skills and creating just stronger collaborations? We are plugged into industry councils, from auto manufacturing, et cetera that have already informed some of the priorities around some of the pilots. So, my hope is that through some of those partnerships, that we will make sure business voices are strongly represented and really become strong collaborators in this work.

The skills gap is something some Big Tech companies are starting to take upon themselves to address. In July, Amazon announced US$700 million to retrain a third of its workforce. Why not leave it to private companies and industry leaders to retrain their own workforces? 

I think everybody has to play a role. We tend to think about those separations between [the] private sector, public sector, community sector, post-secondary institutions, and we don’t tend to think about them in an integrated way. I think the new model has to be more collaborative. At the end of the day, government is going to be setting policy; there will always be workers who will be in transition between jobs that are going to need training. Public investment in that training that is smart, that is demand-driven, that understands what’s happening in the economy is just the new reality in a state where people are going to be shifting jobs and industries a whole lot more. I think business definitely has a role to play. And, I think it’s fair to say that engaging business in much more collaborative discussions about how you can approach some of this retraining and upskilling, and synergies between the private and public and community sectors to make that happen. 

What happens once the six-year federal funding period is over? What will become of the ideas or programs that come from the Future Skills Centre and who will be responsible for funding them? 

The outcome would be, number one, we would have a very solid track record of fully evaluated pilots that can show how organizations can change, how we can engage businesses and employers in more effective ways from a demand-side perspective, how the workforce development and training system can operate more effectively in terms of helping people through workforce transitions, how governments—both through their funding and their policy—can really incentivize the kind of change that we will be demonstrating. I hope we can also show specific policy insights that can really help Canadians make those transitions to income security through immigration and settlement policies, through mental health and well-being. We’re also aiming to create just better connectivity between practitioners and thought leaders around what some of these best practices are. I hope that we will be as much of a voice and a resource for employers and governments and community and academia around the best practices on the ground. But from a government-policy point of view, there are a lot of decisions that need to be made, and hopefully what we can do is—based on good evidence, based on good pilots, based on good ideas—inform those policies.

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There’s a federal election in October. Is there a risk that funding for the organization will be cut if a new government is elected? 

When I look at public opinion polls that ask Canadians what their priorities are, it is not uncommon that the economy and the job market is … right at the top or among the top three. And so, that’s exactly the concern of the Future Skills Centre … to address one of the top-line concerns in the lives of Canadians from coast to coast to coast. And that’s what we’re going to continue to do, irrespective of big-P political mandates.