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The future of work in Ontario

Learn about the findings and recommendations from the Ontario Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee.

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Message from the Chair of the Ontario Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee (OWRAC)

As chair on behalf of the Ontario Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee, I am pleased to submit the report on the future of work for Ontario.

The issues discussed in this report are central to determining the standard of living and quality of life for the people of Ontario for years to come. These issues touch on the intersecting trends of technological change, the impact of the COVID‑19 pandemic and the workforce's recovery. We considered the views of the many workers, businesses, stakeholders, academics and labour representatives we heard from and undertook an extensive consultation process that we have outlined in our report.

We thank the more than 700 individuals and organizations who provided their input orally and in writing during the consultation stage of the committee’s work. The idea of the committee was very much to bring expertise to the table, listen and learn. With their contributions we accomplished all three objectives. Our report would not have been possible without the diverse, sincere and sage perspectives we had the privilege to encounter.

The committee especially thanks Monte McNaughton, Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development, for launching this important exercise and for being a keen supporter of our work from the outset.

His office staff, especially Director of Policy Alexandra Rodgers, Senior Policy Advisor Vladislav Yakovlyev and Policy Intern Kofi Yeboah, have been remarkably open and patient, interacting with us and responding to the committee’s requests ably and with good humour. We thank ministry officials, in particular David Beaulieu, Assistant Deputy Minister of Strategic Policy and David Carter- Whitney, Assistant Deputy Minister of Workforce Policy and Innovation, both with the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development. They and their teams provided the committee with an excellent technical and operational briefing at the start of our work and diligently addressed our follow-up queries.

Susan McArthur was the original chair of the Ontario Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee. Her yeoman’s work in setting up the committee, providing it structure and direction, and leading the formative stages has endured through to the end of our mandate.

Finally, we thank the team at Ipsos for its help in providing research for this report, organizing the public consultations and assisting in drafting and producing the report.

While we acknowledge the input of everyone above, the views expressed in this report and any errors and omissions are solely those of the committee.

Rohinton P. Medhora, Chair

Ontario Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee

The changing workforce and COVID-19

The world of work has been changing for decades, but no event has accelerated those changes more than the COVID‑19 pandemic. The global workforce was transformed in short order as many workers in Ontario suddenly found themselves working from home, part of the largest shift to remote work ever.

A Statistics Canada paper estimates that in January of 2021, 32% of Canadian employees aged 15 to 69 worked mostly from home. In 2016, the figure was just four percent.

The time is right to review and modernize the laws governing work and the programs supporting the different types of workers as we emerge from COVID‑19.

When COVID‑19 began, Canadians quickly realized how much we rely on some workers – such as couriers, grocery store clerks and frontline health staff – to get us the goods and services we need. At the same time, essential workers faced new challenges, where just going to work could make them sick. Those in other sectors lost their jobs or were forced to rely on insecure work to make ends meet, even with generous support from government.

The pandemic also brought on a rapid technological transformation, as we became accustomed to video conferencing for school, doctor’s appointments, meetings and simple social connections. Indeed, every consultation and stakeholder engagement conducted in preparing this report was done remotely. Even the Ontario Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee (OWRAC) itself met only virtually.

Ontario suffered an unemployment shock as well. While government aid helped to blunt some of the most severe effects of the pandemic, many people found themselves out of work, and some also suddenly lost their sense of self and an outlet for engaging with others. At the start of the pandemic, Statistics Canada shows Ontario’s unemployment rate shot up into double digits before gradually beginning to recover.

Graph: at the start of the pandemic, Ontario’s unemployment rate shot up into double digits before gradually beginning to recover.

Unemployment rate and monthly change (in thousands)

For those who continue to have jobs, COVID‑19 has led to a reconsideration of what comes next. Some are quitting their jobs and making drastic career changes. According to an Ipsos study, the pandemic could be leading to the “great resignation.” A Forbes article in May 2021 noted that many employees are considering a job switch post-pandemicrom February 2021, while a McKinsey and Company report on the future of work suggested that “jobs with the highest physical proximity are likely to be the most disrupted.”

In September 2021, Ontario’s unemployment rate stood at 7.3%. Younger men (aged 15-24) have been hard hit by the pandemic, facing an unemployment rate of 15.3%. While some sectors, such as information, culture and recreation, have started to recover, workers in severely affected sectors, such as accommodation and food services, agriculture, wholesale and retail trade, continue to face employment uncertainty.

Monthly employment change by industry in Ontario (%)
IndustryMonthly employment change by industry
Information, culture, recreation33.8%
Finance, insurance and real estate20.1%
Professional, scientific and technical services18.2%
Public administration15.6%
Health care and social assistance9.1%
Transportation and warehousing8.9%
Educational services4.4%
Business, building and other support services2.0%
Forestry, fishing, mining, quarrying, oil and gas1.6%
Utilities-0.4%
Construction-0.5%
Manufacturing-5.3%
Wholesale and retail trade-5.5%
Agriculture-6.0%
Other services (except public administration)-7.5%
Accommodation and food services-15.2%

For others, COVID‑19 has meant delaying retirement. A September 2021 Ipsos survey on behalf of the Canadian Institute of Actuaries found that nearly one-quarter (23%) of working Canadians surveyed are delaying their own or their spouse’s retirement.

A separate survey by Mackenzie Investments shows almost four in 10 working Canadians are not confident about the amount of money their retirement income will provide. While everyone faced challenges due to COVID‑19, the pandemic has not been an even experience for workers across the board.

The problem is clear for the people of Ontario, and they almost unanimously believe that the province needs stronger labour supports and employee benefits for all workers. Four in five (80%) say stronger supports are needed, rather than saying the current labour supports and benefits are sufficient (20%). Only a slight majority (54%) said that, for employers, Ontario is one of the best places in North America to find workers.

A high-quality health-care system (92%), a high-quality education system (89%) and incentives for lifelong learning and skills upgrading (86%) were seen as the most important things the government could focus on to make Ontario the best place to work.

Ontario is a top contender in the global labour market and is an excellent place to work.

While the disruption from the pandemic created challenges, the province is starting from a remarkable place of strength.

Accelerating technology and labour trends requires a close look at training models and labour policies to ensure that Ontario remains a destination of choice.

As the nature of work has changed, it is clear that the laws governing work and the programs supporting workers should be re- examined. This is why the Ontario government, through the Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development Monte McNaughton, convened an advisory committee on the future of work.

The advisory committee

In June 2021, Minister McNaughton announced the formation of the Ontario Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee, or OWRAC for short, and asked it to chart a course for the future of work in the post-pandemic world. He subsequently published an op-ed in the National Post on June 17, 2021, outlining his vision for our work as a committee.

Previously, we strove to find balance between our work lives and our personal lives. Those neat boundaries no longer exist.

Old models and thinking on both sides of the ideological divide no longer quite fit. Some on the left believe government should do it all. Some on the right believe government should do nothing. I believe that government should give people a hand up and spread opportunity more widely and fairly.

Monte McNaughton, Ontario Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development

The advisory committee was appointed by Minister McNaughton with a mandate to provide recommendations on key areas of focus:

  1. Economic recovery: How do we make Ontario the top destination with a world-class workforce and talent supply?

  2. Strengthening Ontario’s competitive position: In an increasingly remote, global and technologically advanced economy, how will we ensure that Ontario remains the best place in North America to recruit, retain and reward workers?

  3. Supporting workers: How will we ensure that Ontario’s technology platform workers benefit from flexibility, control and security?

The committee’s mandate noted that “COVID‑19 has brought on a historic disruption in the labour market that has permanently shifted the landscape of work.” We (the committee) set out to address these changes and make recommendations on how best to secure the future of work for Ontario.

As an advisory committee, we were asked to provide the government with a way forward, including clear and actionable recommendations, along the lines of the three areas of focus identified by Minister McNaughton. Our work was supported by Ipsos and a team of dedicated public servants in the Ministry of Labour, Training, and Skills Development. We brought a broad range of experience and expertise to our work, including labour law, governance, academia and venture capital:

  • Mark Beckles, vice-president of Social Impact and Innovation with RBC Corporate Citizenship, with more than 25 years of experience in financial services and extensive experience on boards of directors.
  • Vasiliki (Vass) Bednar, executive-director of McMaster University’s Masters of Public Policy in Digital Society, a Public Policy Forum fellow and an expert on regulatory structures needed to embrace the future of work.
  • Kathryn Marshall, an employment lawyer based in Toronto focused on employment law and civil litigation. Kathryn has experience handling complex employment matters involving Indigenous communities, government officials, political staff and unionized employees.
  • Susan McArthur, a corporate director, venture capitalist and investment banker. Previously, Susan was a managing partner at GreenSoil Investments, a venture capital firm focused on investing in PropTech and Agro and Food Technology.
  • Rohinton P. Medhora, president of the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ontario, and chairperson of OWRAC. Rohinton sits on multiple boards, including the Commission on Global Economic Transformation.
  • Mark Quail, a lawyer in private practice in Toronto on entertainment and technology-related matters. Mark’s entrepreneurship includes the formation and operation of numerous record labels, a music- publishing administration company and an apps company.
  • Sean Speer, assistant professor in public policy at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and project co-director of the Ontario 360 project at the Munk School and the PPF Scotiabank fellow at the Public Policy Forum.

A comprehensive engagement process

To inform our work, we considered a wide spectrum of views from Ontario residents, workers, labour groups, stakeholders, experts and organizations across Ontario, Canada and internationally. We spoke with different types of workers, including “gig workers” or “technology platform” workers, which includes people who drive for rideshare or courier companies. When we refer to gig workers here, we refer to someone who might be using a digital app to book jobs such as food delivery, and not to someone such as a journalist who takes on freelance writing assignments.

Our purpose was two-fold: to identify the main issues facing the future of work and to gain insights from as many people and organizations as possible. The number of issues turned out to be complex and wide ranging, and a consensus opinion on what to do about many of them is elusive. We needed to hear about the future of work from all sides. We have described our comprehensive engagement process below, which occurred between June and September 2021.

Written submissions

The Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development accepted written submissions via email from June 17 until July 31, 2021. These were provided to Ipsos for analysis. Submissions were open to anyone who wished to write to the ministry about the future of work and we had a robust response. In total, the committee received more than 550 written submissions from organizations and individuals, some of which appeared similar in style and content, ranging from workers to labour unions to academics to businesses and associations.

The written submissions covered a wide variety of issues. We received direct input from many “gig” or “platform” workers concerned about how app-based services govern their performance and hours, and the need for a benefits package. We heard from CEOs and association presidents about the need for Ontario to modernize laws governing the workplace. We heard from small business owners and independent contractors and from labour unions focused on protecting and enhancing the rights of their members. While it is impossible to capture or act on all the advice we received, we thank everyone who took the time to write down their thoughts and opinions and send them to the committee for consideration. We read and considered the advice of everyone who contacted us.

Ipsos analyzed the written responses to identify themes and recommendations related to the committee’s work, which we used to help inform our recommendations. This analysis was done through a careful examination of submissions, and Ipsos identified key recommendations and quotes for us to consider. A selection of quotes from the written submissions is included in this report and Appendix C lists organizations that submitted a written response. Quotes from written submissions have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Stakeholder consultations

Working with Ipsos, and with help from the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development, we identified more than 150 individuals and organizations to speak with directly. They were identified based on their own expertise, as well as the groups they speak for, their public profiles or history in offering insights on the future of work, and their credentials.

Between June and September 2021, we spoke at length with workers, union leaders, academics, experts and small and large business owners, among others. It was impressive and gratifying to see so many individuals and organizations willing to take the time to speak with us. To facilitate an open dialogue, we held a series of virtual stakeholder roundtables. The nature of these consultations spoke to the future of work as they were all conducted online with stakeholders.

Talking directly with these people led to a more robust conversation. We held discussions with workers so we could hear directly from those affected most by changes in the future of work. In addition, we held strategic one-on-one interviews, joint interviews and small meetings with recognized experts. Interviewees were also identified as the project progressed, based on previous discussions or secondary/supplementary research.

Each session included an introduction from Ipsos and a committee member, an outline of privacy and format, emphasizing “Chatham House Rules” to encourage open dialogue, and a series of questions posed by committee members.

We benefited greatly from the open and broad discussion among participants. Some issues raised included needed modifications to the Employment Standards Act, the definitions of precarious workers and independent contractors, and the need for workers to disconnect in the post-pandemic, work-from-anywhere environment. We also heard specific suggestions on topics such as Workplace Safety and Insurance Board insurance rates for employers, some of which are reflected in our recommendations.

We were limited by our mandate and by the sheer volume of recommendations and suggestions we received and, while it is impossible to address all of them in our report, we greatly appreciated the time and effort taken by participants to speak with us directly.

A total of six roundtable discussions, seven small meetings, 11 joint interviews and 54 individual interviews were conducted. Overall, the committee spoke with 164 people. All discussions were chaired by a member of the committee. Most sessions were recorded, with transcripts produced purely for internal analytical purposes. In cases where sessions were not transcribed or recorded at the request of the participants, we took detailed notes to ensure input was captured.

Ipsos analyzed the transcripts and recordings through a careful reading of comments made by participants and identified key themes and recommendations. For example, in a roundtable with workers, we received input from several ride-share and courier drivers about the importance of establishing some sort of benefits plan and examining how those workers are classified.

From the transcripts and recordings, Ipsos identified key recommendations and quotations. A selection of quotes is included in this report and the full list of organizations that consented to being identified can be found in Appendix C. Quotes from stakeholder consultations have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Public opinion survey

We also commissioned a survey of Ontario residents. Ipsos administered and fielded an online survey between July 27 and 30, 2021. A total of 2,003 people in Ontario aged 18 or older were interviewed. The data were weighted by standard demographic variables – age, gender, region and education – in accordance with census proportions. The precision of Ipsos online surveys is calculated via a credibility interval. In this case, the sample is considered accurate to within +/- 2.5 percentage points had all Ontario residents 18 years of age or older been surveyed.

The survey is considered a representative, but not random, sample of the population. Throughout this report we refer to some key results from this survey, and the full results are available in Appendix B.

Public media scan

We conducted an extensive review of mainstream and social media between March and September 2021. Ipsos used artificial intelligence to find and classify news articles and social media posts from sources across Ontario and highlighted key trends.

To manage data coding and categorization by theme, Ipsos utilized proprietary machine-assisted processes to extract concepts from unstructured data based on coding, and coded media posts into themes. This artificial-intelligence-based process learns as it goes from the unstructured data to suggest pathways and data structures that can align with concepts and produce a codeframe.

Specifically, the AI-assisted process began by preparing data for topic modelling (figuring out a base set of categories or themes to start with). Common bigrams (pairs of words) were identified and grouped together (e.g., instead of having one topic for “portable” and one for “benefits,” Ipsos created one topic, “portable benefits”). A future of work example could include “portable benefits,” where the preliminary topic modelling was then performed on media and social media posts. At this step, the entire set of media and social media posts was processed using a proprietary topic-modelling algorithm. The model “learned” by looking at each word in each document and determining which were more likely to occur together, thus creating the initial set of topics. A fixed number of topics was established. Once an optimal number of themes was determined, details of the topic modelling were provided as an output and a sentiment analysis was applied to determine whether the post was “positive” or “negative.” During the model testing, Ipsos utilized BERT, ELMo, CNN+RNN and other NLP (natural language processing) frameworks to derive themes and topics.

Recently, there has been more media coverage of portable benefits and classification of workers, as numerous international jurisdictions have introduced legislation tackling these questions. This report recognizes and references some of the legislation being introduced.

A summary of the results of the media scan is available in Appendix D.

Ipsos presented results of the media scan to the committee and to the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development for consideration.

Literature review

Finally, we conducted an extensive review of previous work done on the future of work. We examined position papers, previous government reports and media and news articles from a variety of sources within Ontario, across Canada and internationally. For example, we looked at an extensive study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on the Future of Work. Some of the broad literature we reviewed dated back to before COVID‑19, and we took this into account in our analysis. Throughout this report, we cite many of the external sources we relied on to reach our recommendations and conclusions.

Our approach to making recommendations

Our recommendations are based on the feedback we received through the process outlined above, our review of existing research and statistics, and our own expertise.

We met frequently to go over recommendations and decide the best course of action. In the end, we came up with twenty-one (21) recommendations for the government across three broad themes.

We provided an interim report to Minister McNaughton and the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development midway through our process, and we maintained an open dialogue with the ministry throughout, while functioning independent of the government.

We also recognized that the future of work was evolving even as the committee completed its work. Recent reports of labour shortages added complexity to the problems we are facing.

According to recent research from the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), 64 percent of Canadian businesses say labour shortages are limiting their growth.

Even as the economy recovers from COVID‑19, we learned that businesses are having difficulty finding workers. Fifty-five (55%) of Canadian entrepreneurs say they are struggling to fill vacancies. According to the BDC, “The long-term decrease of the labour force growth and the recent effects of the pandemic have worsened the uneven impact of the labour shortage. The BDC further notes that “unemployment persists in some sectors, while labour scarcity persists in others.”

As reported by the National Post on Oct. 8, 2021, Statistics Canada noted that in July 2021 there were about 1.5 million unemployed Canadians, while employers needed to fill about 800,000 vacancies. There is a gap between matching willing workers and employers in need.

We included data points such as this in our thinking and, where possible, have cited external sources to validate our recommendations.

Building on previous work by the Ontario government

We are not starting from square one. We also carefully considered work already done by the Ontario government as the province navigated the pandemic and the challenging transformation of the workforce. For example, the establishment of a new skills trades strategy by the province guided us. We looked at how Bill 288, the Building Opportunities in the Skilled Trades Act, enabled the government to wind down the College of Trades, which was replaced by Skilled Trades Ontario. Already the Ontario government has invested more than $1 billion over four years, and new apprenticeship registrations have increased by 5.5% as a result. Skilled Trades Ontario is expected to be operational at the beginning of 2022.

This, as well as other work the Ontario government has completed, serves as a foundation for our work as the committee charged with providing recommendations on the future of work.

Identifying issues and themes

The committee based its consultations and deliberations on the three areas of focus identified by Minister McNaughton, and our recommendations are organized around three themes based on those areas of focus.

The themes are:

  1. Ensuring that Ontario remains the best place in North America to recruit, retain and reward workers.

  2. Supporting workers, especially platform workers, by ensuring they benefit from flexibility, control and security.

  3. Making Ontario the top destination with a world-class workforce and talent supply.

We framed our recommendations around these themes and made sure our recommendations are actionable and clear – areas where the government can make immediate changes that will benefit workers quickly and in a meaningful and measurable way.

A major recurring theme was working from home. Although not all workers are able to do that, we know that close to half of Ontario residents either mostly or always (39%) or sometimes (7%) work from home.

Remote work – what was once simply known as telework that applied only to a small portion of workers – is now a universal feature for many. Some workers, particularly highly skilled ones, have been able to transition to a work-from-home/ work-from-anywhere model with relative ease. This trend appears likely to continue for certain types of workers, as organizations adopt a hybrid model where employees spend some of their time working from the office and some working from home or elsewhere.

Businesses seem to agree. According to a 2021 Navigator report, 67% of 2,000 businesses surveyed internationally say they “see remote working as crucial to growth,” while “77% see a strong relationship between investing in the workforce and profitability.”

Other types of employees have not had this opportunity. Gig workers, frontline workers - including health-care and retail workers - construction workers and building contractors, and even some types of office workers can perform their job only at a specified place of work. For these workers, regardless of skill level, the option to work from anywhere never existed.

One of the most enduring themes to emerge from COVID‑19 will likely be where people work. The benefits and drawbacks of working from anywhere are broad, but not universal. Governments, organizations and companies will need to grapple with a need to balance flexibility with fairness, and accountability with productivity. Work from anywhere appears here to stay for now, but how it affects various types of workers will differ considerably. Some of our recommendations provide guidance on how the government can respond to the “work from anywhere” trend.

Another area we carefully considered was how existing legislation – particularly the Employment Standards Act – is, or should be, interpreted and enforced. We were more seized, however, with how legislation could be improved, modernized or simplified, rather than with how the government chooses to interpret and enforce laws already on the books. For that reason, we do not have specific recommendations around interpreting or enforcing existing laws.

Where we did focus on legislation, it was on ways to improve and modernize the shape of future work.

Communicating our recommendations

Throughout this report we have included select points of data to assist the reader in understanding the context of our recommendations. We have also included a few “example workers” to give readers a better understanding of what type of worker the recommendation is targeting.

We have tried to adopt a narrative style, but all recommendations are backed by data, research and extensive consultation with stakeholders. These stakeholders included workers, particularly those engaged in the gig economy, or independent contractors. The future of work is moving rapidly, and the committee was tasked with keeping pace and providing recommendations to support the people of Ontario now. That is what we have done throughout this report.

A great deal more work remains. To that end, we urge the government to establish an annual process on the future of work. This could lead to a regular state-of-the-workforce report.

Finally, we thank the government, and in particular Minister McNaughton, for calling upon the committee to provide advice on how best to create a future of work that benefits Ontario employees – current and those to come – and employers alike.

Updated: June 17, 2022
Published: December 01, 2021