Contributed to the Globe and Mail by Elio Luongo and Michael Mitchell
The unprecedented effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have exposed an economic divide in Canada – both from a worker and a business perspective. Companies that have been able to engage their customers online or their work forces remotely have maintained cash flows while those lacking a digital footprint have seen their operations and people largely shuttered during the pandemic.
Addressing this divide will be one of the most critical challenges facing government, investors and business leaders as we work to restart and reshape our economy.
The required economic shutdown to stem the spread of COVID-19 has taken its toll, with economists forecasting Canadian GDP to fall as much as 30 per cent and about three million workers losing their jobs. As recent data from Statistics Canada show, low-income Canadians have borne the brunt of those losses.
From February to April, roughly half of employees earning less than $16 an hour either lost their jobs or the majority of their work hours. Many of these were in the services sector, which faces a uniquely challenging climb out of this recession.
This forced recession has laid bare the truth that many organizations in Canada need to accelerate their digital investments to effectively engage their own work force, their customers and suppliers in a physically-distancing world.
For these organizations, and their work forces, the climb ahead will be difficult – and in many cases – may be impossible without targeted government support to bring them into the digital age.
Physical distancing is not going away any time soon, which means even with restrictions being lifted across the country, Canadians won’t be rushing back to the office, malls, restaurants and arenas. Many Canadians and their employers will choose to continue to work and do business remotely.
As a result, the organizations Canadians have been able to turn to these past three months will continue to grab market share from their analogue rivals. Their ability to serve their customers – and often in an even more convenient way – has established them as innovative, solutions-oriented companies that were there during the time of need.
Those organizations that have been absent the past few months from the minds – and business – of their customers will need to quickly accelerate their digital transformation if they are to win their customers back. But they can’t do this alone.
Canadian governments have been effective in implementing much-needed universal programs to try and mitigate the economic impact on business and workers. With these programs, speed and wide application has been critical, but coming out of the crisis, a strategic and targeted strategy is required.
Business owners and the millions of employees depending on those companies to earn a living are depending upon it.
Conduct vulnerability assessments
Governments, business leaders and investors need to identify Canadian industries and subindustries hardest hit by COVID-19 to determine where emerging technologies can help these industries – and their at-risk work forces – adapt to the new realities.
There are advanced artificial intelligence tools to help conduct these vulnerability assessments in a structured way that would effectively evaluate the level of investment needed for these organizations and populations to recover and thrive in the new economic and social reality. These assessments will point out where the cost of these investments is too high.
This same vulnerability exercise needs to be applied to government organizations to ensure they, too, have the tools and skill sets to effectively serve Canadians in an increasingly digital world. The quick implementation of online payment system for the Canada Emergency Work Subsidy is a powerful demonstration of the level of digital service now expected to serve the needs of Canadians.
Investments in people
The industry vulnerability analysis will be critical to determine where to focus the Canadian work force moving forward. It will help us identify who has the skills to participate in the new economy and who needs to be retrained.
Government and business will need to work with academia to build out online learning programs that enable all Canadians access to this retraining, no matter where they live.
But most critical to this is a recognition that we are also going to have to support those workers and their families who require retraining by considering extending something similar to the CEWS to provide a guaranteed basic income, while they go back to school.
Invest in technology infrastructure
This pandemic has shown the importance of collecting, analyzing and distributing information with digital tools. Canadians, no matter where they are in the country, should have access to digital services from all levels of government.
To drive us to the next level, governments should look to work with various providers across the country to make 5G a reality. In a country as large and sparsely populated as Canada, 5G needs to be evaluated as part of our public infrastructure if we are going to find the funds to build it out.
Businesses should also embrace the culture of remote work. As many organizations have discovered during this pandemic, people don’t necessarily need to show up in the workplace every day to do their jobs effectively. There should be no reason why an unemployed worker who lives in Calgary should not be given equal opportunity to work remotely for a company based in another city or province.
Now is the time to plan for what our future should be. We have the tools to analyze the sectors and skills that will drive us forward to build a resilient Canada, for all.
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