Taking Stock: Exploring job pathways in Ontario’s grocery sector

Taking Stock: Exploring job pathways in Ontario’s grocery sector

We’re launching a new project that builds on our job pathways model, using human-centred design and leveraging data and local research with food retail workers and employers in Ontario
Annalise Huynh
Policy Analyst + Designer
Kimberly Bowman
Senior Projects Manager
August 26, 2020
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Millions of people across Canada—and their jobs—have been affected by the global COVID-19 pandemic, with some jobs not expected to recover for years, if at all. One of the biggest collective challenges we face as we emerge from the global crisis will be supporting workers and employers to navigate this disruption. How do we help build on employment and training programs to guide millions of people away from loss, toward industries with existing talent gaps or the promise of real growth?

Of course, we didn’t anticipate a global pandemic and economic crisis last year when we developed our job pathways model. We were reacting to an identified gap between people in Canada who were facing unemployment and unmet demand for employees in other parts of the workforce. Critical reports of public-sector reskilling programs suggested that they were not effectively connecting workers with real-world jobs. 

There are existing job pathways tools that use algorithms based on skills similarities to suggest jobs for workers, but job transitions aren’t always so simple. And that’s a big part of the challenge: Existing data can’t necessarily tell us about what employers consider when they’re hiring, or how worker histories affect their job search decisions. Place and location matter; local employers’ needs can be unique; and workers have individual concerns and needs, and great capacity for growth as they navigate job transitions. We believe that a human-centered design approach, combining data and algorithms with local insights, is an even better way to identify job pathways with strong prospects for success. 

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Canada invests billions of dollars in skills development training; these programs should be as well-targeted and responsive to the local context as possible.

A reminder: Last year’s work

Last year, we developed and tested a job pathways model in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). It combined labour market data with qualitative insights from local employers, training providers, and economic developers to explore high-potential job transitions. We used available data to incorporate factors including skills adjacency, locally available opportunities, relative wages, and job growth and decline.

As we completed the project, we better understood its strengths and its limitations. While our model provided a helpful starting point, we knew we would need to build on it to account for important factors affecting job transitions in the real world. Could a different commute to a new job be feasible for someone? Could someone moving from this job to that one afford the recommended training and wrap-around supports? Would an employer consider someone with this job history? Is anyone even hiring for these jobs in this place at this time? 

Moving forward, we want to make our job pathways model even better. Canada invests billions of dollars in skills development training; these programs should be as well-targeted and responsive to the local context as possible. Could we push a bit further to develop and test tools to refine the model, helping policymakers with critical decisions in the near future?  

Ontario is home to nearly 124,000 cashiers and 81,000 grocery store clerks and shelf stockers. These are important and essential workers; they’re also workers in jobs that are increasingly vulnerable to disruption from the growing use of automation technologies and the growth of online retail giants.

This year: Phase two

In 2020–2021, we’re exploring job pathways in the food retail sector, focusing on grocery cashiers, clerks, and shelf stockers. While data show us that employment in these occupations remained fairly robust between 2006-2016, dynamics can be different in urban and rural locations and there are some shifts between full and part-time jobs. We’re also seeing potential disruptions from technologies or shifting consumer behaviours—from self-check outs to smart grocery carts, autonomous check-outs, robot-enabled order picking and, of course, a COVID-19 accelerated growth in online grocery shopping. What could these changes mean for workers and employers in the future?  We’ll be looking at trends and forces in and around Ontario’s food retail sector, and where possible, identifying promising opportunities. 

We’re grateful to be learning alongside partners in industry, labour, government and policy and philanthropy to make sense of change in an important sector of our economy. Ontario is home to nearly 124,000 cashiers and 81,000 grocery store clerks and shelf stockers. These are important and essential workers; they’re also workers in jobs that are increasingly vulnerable to disruption from the growing use of automation technologies and the growth of online retail giants.

Labour markets are filled with people…

Human-centered design provides us with an important lens since we want to identify job pathways that work well for both workers and their would-be employers. We have designed an approach that involves a number of qualitative methods, building on the one-on-one interviews we used in 2019. In addition to consulting with employers to validate pathways and understand sector-specific hiring practices, in this phase of work we’ll be using cultural probes to help us better understand the lives and perspectives of workers, online focus groups to explore specific themes in depth, and a simple online survey to test our hypotheses and understand relative priorities for groups of workers. Used together, we hope that these methods can help us better understand the realities and concerns of workers and employers across demographic backgrounds and life circumstances. We’re aiming to share insight on the important factors to consider when designing policies and programs to support job transitions, as well as guidance—to the extent possible—on how to understand and integrate them in different contexts.

Our job pathways model leverages both data-driven inquiry and local qualitative insights. We’re hoping that it can help provide policymakers and program designers with accurate and detailed information about local conditions, worker decision-making, and evolving supply of and demand for talent for the development of successful strategies for training and redeployment. Algorithms and skills adjacency models have an important place—we argue that it’s alongside systematic, human-centered inquiry. In order to deliver targeted interventions that local labour markets (employers and workers) actually want and need, we must combine data with a critical human eye. 

Listen to the experts

While many of our initiatives draw on the skills and insights of external collaborators and advisors, we’re also trying something a little different with this project. We’re enlisting the advice of four current Ontario food retail workers, who serve as specialist advisors on this project. They’ll be helping our team of GTA-based policy researchers operate sensibly and respectfully in a sector that’s different from our own. We’re also grateful to advisors and partners in philanthropy, government, labour and beyond. This research is made possible thanks to support from JPMorgan Chase & Co. It is an Employment Ontario project, funded in part by the Government of Canada and the Government of Ontario. It is also undertaken in partnership with the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW Canada), with contributions from partners including MaRS Data Catalyst and the Labour Market Information Council. 

Meet one of our specialist advisors, and learn more about the project and methodology by watching our Job Pathways virtual launch event:

What we’re aiming to do

This project has two important goals: We’re aiming to identify job pathways in the food retail sector and we’re looking to further improve on our existing job pathways model. We started this work pre-COVID-19, and the pandemic has resulted in economic shocks that make such work even more important. As millions of Canadian workers—sometimes even entire sectors—experience serious disruption, policymakers need a toolbox filled with the best, most practical tools to support the people affected. 

We’ll use insights from testing the model in real-world scenarios to update our playbook, with an expected publication date in Spring 2021. We know that this is a critical time for policymakers, job developers, and others so we’ll be regularly sharing our research along the way through blogs and online briefings. We welcome you to learn alongside our team. You can register your interest using this form or by emailing Kimberly Bowman (kimberlybowman@ryerson.ca) or Annalise Hyunh (annalise.huynh@ryerson.ca) directly.    

For media enquiries, please contact Lianne George, Director of Strategic Communications at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship.

Annalise Huynh
Policy Analyst + Designer
Kimberly Bowman
Senior Projects Manager
August 26, 2020
Print Page

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