Ontario’s employment services redesign would benefit from stronger careers focus

Jun 17, 2021

Challenge Factory applauds all efforts to assist Canadians in the pursuit of active, vibrant, and productive careers and we encourage the Government of Ontario to set targets beyond clients served, jobs attained, or skills acquired. The formal field of career development holds the keys to an employment services ecosystem ready to support citizens as they pursue work and learning across the entire lifespan.

What’s been announced?

On June 10, the Government of Ontario announced that the next phase in its redesign of the province’s publicly funded employment services system has begun. The new system aims to:

  • better integrate the large, separate employment services systems that are currently in place: Employment Ontario, Ontario Disability Support Program, and Ontario Works;
  • implement a new outcome-focused, performance-based model that focuses on providing jobseekers with a clear path to employment; and,
  • select new Service System Managers (SSMs) to oversee the design and delivery of employment services in their communities.

The new system is already being piloted in three catchment areas (Peel, Muskoka-Kawartha, and Hamilton-Niagara), and the rollout to the other 12 catchment areas will take place in sequenced stages through to the end of 2023.

Challenge Factory’s response: From a career development perspective

Challenge Factory is encouraged to see the province moving to implement system-wide changes that are more:

  1. responsive to changing (and increasingly complex) workforce and employment conditions;
  2. inclusive in its attention to Ontario’s diverse client populations, needs, and communities; and,
  3. committed to establishing tools that enable consistent assessment of clients, volumes, and outcomes (beyond the current case management tools already in use).

We are eager to see how these changes will be implemented in ways that concretely address shortfalls in the current system and support the lifelong career development of all Ontarians.

What does Ontario’s employment services redesign need? Challenge Factory celebrates Ontario’s commitment to employment services and calls for the redesign to: • Place careers at the centre of the discussion, not jobs or skills. • Rethink the current “fail-first” approach to employment services. • Integrate Canada’s new Career Development Professional Competency Model into the redesigned system. • Consult with leaders in the career development sector throughout the multi-year redesign process. • Align supports and service delivery with sound career theories and methodologies. • Ensure Ontarians receive services that follow career development best practices. • Ensure Ontarians have access to professionals with formal career development training. • Identify older workers as a key group with unique career needs who deserve and require support.

Notable: Jobs and skills aren’t always career opportunities

We’ve written elsewhere about the difference between career development and jobs/skills attainment, and how the latter doesn’t always equip individuals to navigate the workforce in ways that foster rewarding or sustainable career paths. We’ve also written about the importance of integrating a lifelong careers lens into employment policies and programs so that individuals and communities are placed at the centre of solutions, as well as empowered to drive their own career, economic, and community building.

There are positive signs that the changes coming to Ontario’s employment services are favourable to this type of careers lens, but concerted action still needs to be taken to see it realized.

The province is already attentive to the need for “client-centric delivery,” a “smooth employment services journey,” and supports that are “localized to help all workers, business, and communities.”

The province is also attentive to the challenge of “spin cycle” clients, a common consequence of services that don’t properly guide clients onto rewarding, sustainable career paths. For example, one in four clients stay on Ontario Works for more than five years, almost half the clients who leave Ontario Works return, and four in five of those who return are back on it within a year.

For these challenges and service requirements to be met, careers must be placed at the centre of the discussion. This is precisely what Canada’s career development sector is positioned to do. (Check out this blog post for a quick rundown of the guiding principles of career development.)

Notable: Older workers are missing from the redesign

At this stage, it’s unclear how much attention the province will give to ensuring clients receive services that follow career development best practices and engage with professionals who have formal career development training. It’s also unclear how much the province will consult with leaders in the career development sector during the multi-year process. It’s worth noting that the province’s 16-page backgrounder on the rollout does not once use the term “career.”

The province’s plan does identify several under-represented and other key groups that SSMs will be mandated to work with, including Francophone clients, Indigenous clients, newcomers, clients with disabilities, and youth with higher support needs. It also expresses interest in how SSMs will support women with higher support needs and Black and racialized people.

However, a key group that is missing from the plan is Ontario’s older workers, a large population that continues to grow and will face new challenges after being disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a group that is frequently overlooked and whose members, once unemployed, tend to stay unemployed. But traditional retirement is increasingly a hallmark of the past, and older workers’ career needs deserve and require just as much support as any other age cohort.

Rethinking the system: Ontario’s “fail first” approach needs to go

Integrating the sector’s new Career Development Professional Competency Model into the redesigned system would ensure that service providers are able to support all Ontarians’ lifelong career development rather than just resume creation and interview preparation. It would also ensure that both the services being delivered and the evaluation tools used to measure their success are aligned with sound career theories and methodologies.

The career development sector is largely not visible in Canada, despite being widespread and full of internationally recognized expertise. This invisibility poses a risk to both the province’s policymaking and Ontarians’ career literacy. Furthermore, Ontario’s approach to employment services is a “fail first” model, where supports are deployed only after a significant career interruption has occurred. It’s like only providing financial planning to those who have already experienced bankruptcy.

Imagine instead an employment services system that supports Ontarians in their career development in ways that help them avoid employment crises in the first place. Imagine also a system that can support everyone, including groups with unique needs, throughout their entire career journey.

The changes coming to Ontario’s employment services offer an essential opportunity to amplify the career development sector’s voice and role in the redesigned system, increase awareness of career development by all Ontarians, and model the effectiveness of applying a career lens to employment services. The province’s collaborative engagement with the sector will be critical, and ultimately determine whether the new system truly is responsive and inclusive, or just more of the same “fail first.”

 Additional Reading

 Challenge Factory:

Government of Ontario:


With contributions from Lisa Taylor and Taryn Blanchard.

Lisa Taylor, President, Challenge Factory
Author, Speaker


Taryn Blanchard, Research Coordinator, Challenge Factory


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