How will Quebec prepare workers for the post-pandemic era? Economic update could provide details

·4 min read

Even though most of the province is still under partial lockdown, the Quebec government is expected to reveal key parts of its plan to build a post-pandemic economy at tomorrow's fall economic update.

Finance Minister Eric Girard is scheduled to address the province at 2:15 p.m. on Thursday, when he will provide the latest estimate on the Quebec's deficit and outline the government's spending priorities for the coming months.

In an address to party supporters on the weekend, Premier François Legault indicated his government was going to start preparing the province's workforce to adapt to the economic changes spurred by the pandemic.

"Artificial intelligence, robotization — it's a new economy that is facing us," Legault said in his speech. "We will have to retrain workers in new sectors. Retraining will now be part of a new reality."

Economies around the world were, of course, already undergoing digitization before the global outbreak of COVID-19.

Sylvain Roy Roussel/CBC
Sylvain Roy Roussel/CBC

But that process has intensified as the pandemic forced millions to work from home and disrupted labour-intensive industries.

Quebec has lagged behind other provinces when it comes training workers with the skills to operate in higher-tech environments, said Mia Homsy, the CEO of l'Institut du Québec, an economic think tank.

"Governments and businesses have to invest in people. For me, that's the most important thing I want to see in the economic update," Homsy said. "It's a blind spot we have right now."

Equipping the workforce for a digital economy is all the more important given Quebec's labour shortage, which is once again being felt after a few months of high unemployment at the outset of the pandemic.

The pandemic, said Homsy, drove large numbers of people into retirement in sectors of the economy that were already having labour supply problems, especially in health and education.

Replacing outgoing workers with a pool that has transferable skills adapted to the digital era will be necessary for Quebec's economy to grow in the post-pandemic world.

"We don't know exactly what the jobs of tomorrow will be or what the economy will be like in 10 years. But one thing we do know is that we need workers who are resilient," Homsy said.

If workers don't have the capacity to adapt to a society that will be defined by technological change, she warned, inequalities will increase and social mobility will stop.

How long to balance the budget?

But the need for investments in the workforce comes amid signs the government is growing anxious about the province's finances, following eight months of pandemic-related spending.

Quebec is expected to announce on Thursday a deficit of somewhere around $15 billion, said Homsy, roughly the same as was forecast in the June economic update.

That $15 billion included a $4 billion contingency reserve which the Institute du Quebec estimates should cover the decrease in government revenues caused by the second-wave lockdowns that began last month.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press
Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Girard has already been thinking about how to erase that deficit, despite Quebec's stubbornly high case load and the premier giving no indication he's ready to lift the lockdown measures currently in place.

Under Quebec law, governments have five years to restore a balanced budget after posting a deficit.

Girard told a legislative committee last month he has every intention of sticking to that timeline. And he vowed to do so without raising taxes.

There is an emerging consensus among economists, though, who believe that timeline is highly unrealistic, unless the government starts slashing spending.

A report published earlier this fall by public finance specialists at the Université de Sherbrooke concluded it would be a mistake to aggressively reduce public spending given the need for public services will remain high even after the pandemic ends.

The report suggested the government "avoid cuts, for the moment, that negatively affect public services and focus instead at stabilizing the funding of the state's principal responsibilities," the report said.

The authors urged the government to consider a seven-year timeline for balancing the budget. But Girard appears unswayed by the argument.

"It is important to be ambitious and aim for balancing the budget [by 2025]," he told the National Assembly's finance committee in October. That goal, he added, "will be difficult."