Thank you. I believe we have resolved things.
Once again, I thank the members of the committee for the invitation and I commend them on wanting to hear from a wide cross-section of Canadian society, including younger Canadians like me.
My remarks today are going to focus on three topics. First, I'll say a few words about how I am thinking about this crisis, which will hopefully provide useful context for my later recommendations. Second, I'll discuss ways to retrain and upskill the Canadian workforce. Third, I'll turn to how government can better support students, in particular students with disabilities.
I want to start by discussing two assumptions and beliefs that guide my thinking about the crisis.
The first is that, in my view, it is imperative that government make morbidity, and not just mortality, a top-of-mind consideration in all of its policy decisions, particularly in the interim economic reopening phase as it assesses acceptable risks of virus exposure.
The outcome of coronavirus is often expressed as a binary. We focus on case fatality rates—so many survive and so many do not—and we judge the success or failure of government responses by how many of its citizens die from the disease.
The science, however, is increasingly clear that COVID-19 does not lead to binary outcomes. Many who survive it, particularly the 10% to 15% who experience severe or acute symptoms requiring hospitalization, suffer permanent damage not only to their lungs, but also to their kidneys, liver, heart and even brain. These will require ongoing medical care and have lifelong consequences for their quality of life.
Accordingly, it's my view that even for those who are likely to survive COVID-19, the morbidity risks of exposure should be central to policy decisions and are sufficiently great to justify the most stringent measures to avoid exposure.
My second assumption about this crisis is that many of the changes that are brought about will not be undone, not by a vaccine, not by herd immunity. We do ourselves a disservice by assuming that they might.
The world record for vaccine development is held by the mumps vaccine, which took four years. Concurrent trials for coronavirus vaccine candidates will shorten the timeline, but it is extraordinarily optimistic to assume that we will develop tests and administer a vaccine in anything less than 24 months. Those two years or more will accelerate social and economic changes that would otherwise have taken decades to materialize. It will transform how we live, work and learn, and those changes will not be reversed when the virus threat is contained. A clear acknowledgement of this is, in my view, the best way to guarantee better policy outcomes and a stronger recovery.
With this in mind, I will turn to workforce interventions.
Some sectors will bounce back relatively unscathed, and they'll bounce back quickly. In these sectors, wage subsidy programs serve their purpose by avoiding disruption that would otherwise result in layoffs that would sever the employer-employee relationship.
In other sectors, labour demand has permanently shifted. Much of the job displacement that we've seen in recent months wasn't so much caused by COVID-19 as it was accelerated by it. Many of the functions most affected by the pandemic were already under threat from tech and automation. What we've seen in the pandemic is that labour-replacing automation is even more cost-effective because of its resilience to virus-driven shocks. Put simply, this means that in many sectors, labour demand has permanently shifted and wage subsidies will mask these shifts for as long as they remain in place. They'll delay the associated layoffs, but they will not reverse those underlying changes.
This means that before the government begins to phase out income support programs, it needs to proactively identify where labour demand has shifted and where it has surged to reorient its focus on retraining and upskilling programs to help repair the Canadian workforce for their new post-coronavirus economy.
To re-skill at speed and scale, government should focus on two distinct interventions: first, rapid upskilling for short-term demand surges such as retail grocery and last-mile delivery; second, longer-term re-skilling that can help workers move into careers aligned with future skills trends, like health services, remote work and remote education.
To this end, I have four recommendations.
The first is that the format of retraining is ripe for innovation. In Canada, we've tended to focus on multi-year degrees, but in most sectors microcredit modules can provide workers with targeted training in the most advanced skills more quickly and at far lower costs. Microcredits would be most effective if developed in concert with employers or industry associations to ensure that workers are provided with targeted skills that most closely match the needs of the Canadian job market.
Second, as government prepares to phase out the CERB, it should consider offering displaced workers the option to continue receiving it for one or several additional months on the condition that they take that time to complete micro-credentialing modules, particularly if these modules are developed in concert with employers. This would help ease their transition back into the workforce.
Third, government should create an online talent exchange that helps match those who have completed microcredits to employers. This would increase job market transparency and reduce frictions in worker redeployment. This kind of exchange was recently designed in the U.S. in just six days by a group of food sector companies. It was launched in April and has been extraordinarily successful at matching jobseekers to food sector employers experiencing short-term demand surges related to the pandemic.
Fourth, government should consider subsidizing retraining initiatives specifically for micro-businesses and SMEs. In Germany, the recent Qualification Opportunities Act subsidizes companies' employee training costs up to 100% for micro-businesses and up to 50% for SMEs.
To reiterate, government should, first, replace multi-year training programs with microcredits developed in concert with employers; second, consider extending CERB payments for those who decide to complete these microcredit retraining programs; third, create an online talent exchange that helps match jobseekers with employers; and fourth, subsidize the retraining costs of microenterprises and SMEs.
Now I'll turn to students, which, as a recent graduate, I may be most equipped to discuss.
There are many ways government can support students in this crisis. Few are more pressing than ensuring universal access to high-quality Internet. CRTC data show that 11% of Canadian households still don't have access to Internet, and even those who have it face massive disparities in connection speed and reliability. In a remote work environment, the inequities this creates cannot be overstated.
The Ottawa Catholic School Board recently recommended to students who didn't have Internet access at home to hunker down in parking lots to listen to lectures and complete their assignments. In Manitoba, the Garden Hill First Nation was forced to cancel the school year outright, citing poor Internet connectivity as a key factor in the decision.
My recommendation is simple: You should provide every student that does not have Internet at home with a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot device. The long-term work of this committee is to wire all of Canada to ensure universal broadband Internet. That could take years, and we don't have years. Wi-Fi hotspot devices cost about $10 a month, and they could immediately close the digital divide that remains a limiting factor for so many students.
Spectrum, the U.S. broadband provider, recently launched a program that provides one of these devices free of cost to any K-to-12 student who does not have Internet at home. The Canadian government should pressure Canadian carriers to follow suit and subsidize the cost of doing so if need be. As it becomes increasingly clear that social distancing measures will continue to limit in-school learning for one year or more, government needs to do everything in its power to ensure that all students have the Internet access that they need to succeed.
I'd like to say a note about disabled students. It's become almost trite to recognize that the pandemic has disproportionately burdened those least equipped to bear its weight, and students with disabilities are no exception. The additional support they've received through the CESB has helped them absorb the cost of purchasing ergonomic equipment and assistive technologies, but critical gaps remain in the delivery of online learning. Educational institutions in Canada have not historically prioritized the procurement of accessible technology. This means that the shift to remote learning has replicated, in their digital classrooms, the barriers disabled students already face in the physical world.
There are two cost-effective ways government can help. In the short term, government should pressure the companies that design the products, apps and schooling technologies currently in use to create a mandatory accessibility issue complaint mechanism with a prescribed timeline for remediation of reported issues. This would ease the immediate challenges of disabled students. Second, government should educate employers and universities on how to continue making remote work an option. This would broaden access to education and employment for students who might otherwise have been limited by their physical disabilities.
To conclude, the challenge before this committee is great, as these are difficult times, but great challenges can make great opportunities. No people are better positioned than the elected men and women of this committee to seize that opportunity, assert leadership and help Canadians build back better, ensuring we come out of this pandemic stronger, more resilient and more united.