Sean Conway talks labour market changes at Algonquin College
Ryan Paulsen / Daily Observer
Former Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke MPP Sean Conway, currently serving as chairman of the provincial Highly Skilled Workforce Strategy Expert Panel, discussed some of the challenges facing the Ontario labour market at a panel discussion at Algonquin College in Pembroke on April 25.
The Province of Ontario has decided the time has come to tackle challenges presented by a rapidly changing labour market head-on. To that end, a panel was brought together last fall to research the issue and bring forward a strategic plan for addressing shortages in the up-and-coming Ontario workforce.
On April 25, committee chairman Sean Conway, who served as MPP for Renfrew County from 1975 until his retirement from politics in 2003, was on hand at Pembroke's Algonquin College Waterfront Campus to meet with local stakeholders.
"Premier Wynne launched the panel last fall, and we've been told to have a report in to her office not later than August of this summer, and we intend to meet that deadline," Conway told media after the closed-door session wrapped up. "Algonquin College here in Pembroke, particularly, was anxious that somebody from the panel come to the campus to meet with people from the Upper Ottawa Valley to hear their perspectives on labour market issues in rural, small-town, Eastern Ontario, and it was a very valuable, three-hour session we had today."
College officials were encouraged by the event, which they saw as an indication that the provincial government was taking more of an interest in the affairs of more rural parts of Ontario.
"This has just been such a thrill and we feel so privileged to have been able to host the panel here," says college dean Karen Davies. "We are small, rural Ontario and it's really nice to know that the province wants to hear from rural Ontario. Having Mr. Conway here, having the employers and other educators from our community all around the same table all morning was awesome. We got a lot of information, we provided a lot of feedback to the panel, and so we're very excited to see the outcome of the workforce panel report, and we really think it'll help Algonquin College as well as the Ottawa Valley and all our communities."
The two main challenges facing Ontario's labour market, Conway explained, are rapid technological change and demographic evolution, which has seen the Baby Boomer generation getting older and leaving gaps in the labour market in their wake.
In Renfrew County, says Conway, there are a few particular issues that were raised during the Algonquin College meeting.
"We were told, for example, that in a labour force where you've got older workers who in many cases need retraining, transportation is a real issue. To get that 35-year-old single mom who wants to come to Algonquin, but maybe lived out between Eganville and Dacre has to get into Pembroke to Algonquin to access a training program. Some of the employers were talking about getting better labour market information to young people who are coming through the high schools in Pembroke, Eganville or Barry's Bay to make them understand where the emerging opportunities are, and why it's important that you don't drop your math in high school, and why math, science and technology are going to be more, not less, important in the labour market of 2016 and beyond. It was very valuable."
While he thought the meeting was fruitful, and remains positive about the potential impact of the process on the future of Ontario's job market, Conway is struck by the importance of the issue, which he has seen discussed in varying levels of depth over the past few decades.
"I am hopeful, because it's a fundamental part of our economic wellbeing. We've got opportunities, but we've got challenges. We are hearing in these discussions of sectors that have thousands of jobs that are going to be unfilled if we don't better match the job with the skill. I remember these discussions 35 years ago. The fact of the matter is that the world has changed. We live in a digital age. This is a cyber world. One of the fastest-growing opportunities in today's job market is cyber-security. How many young people know that, and know what's required to get a $100,000 a year job in cyber-security? That's the challenge we face today, because there are new jobs occurring in this economy that weren't even remotely imagined when I was the Minister of Education a long time ago."
Another reason for Conway's optimism is the presence of first steps being already taken in the Ottawa Valley in other communities.
"Good business education partnerships are already in place in the region, but we need to do more of those kinds of initiatives. We need to improve the counselling of young and old workers about where the job markets are moving and what you need to do to access the best opportunities."
For Davies, the most important factor to be taken away from the meeting at Algonquin is that while the problems facing the Ontario labour market are, to a certain extent, universal, rural and urban areas are going to require bespoke solutions in order to properly address the issues.
"I think the big takeaway is that many of our communities, whether urban or rural, are suffering from the same issues, but the way that we would deal with them is slightly different, and that's really important to take back to the province. We may have one solution, but the way we apply it might be different from Toronto to Kingston to Pembroke, and there seemed to be real understanding from the panel that the solution may be there, but how we implement it may be different in each of the communities. That was huge."