Collecting Data for Inclusive Design: An Update on the Research Phase of VFC’s Reskilling Retail Workers Project

Sharing Our Learnings: VFC’s Reskilling Retail Workers Project

In the first half of 2020, 1.3 million Canadian retail jobs were lost due to the pandemic and retail was among the top three sectors with the largest drop in labour demand. It is also an industry where 21% of jobs are at high risk of automation with few or no options to transition into lower-risk occupations without significant retraining, according to a McKinsey study. The pandemic and automation have widened these gaps and displacement factors disproportionately affect women, Indigenous, and racialized communities.

The Reskilling Displaced Retail Workers Project is a project funded by the Government of Canada’s Future Skills Centre. The project supports the design of a reskilling program focusing on racialized and Indigenous youth in Ontario.

This report aims to surface the big questions that the Reskilling Retail Workers Project has encountered after establishing a Collaboration Framework with a consortium of cross-sector leaders. In the project’s first phase, we asked, “how might we address the issue together?” 

The Issue: There is a shortage of informed reskilling programs for retail workers, and when a single sector attempts to launch a program, it is often a band-aid solution lacking long-term impact.

Here, we are asking, “what information, resources, and data does an organization need to create sustainable programs for labour transitions and pathways?

In this report, we provide:

  • A short literature review with recommendations and best practices for reskilling programs
  • Our approach to inclusive design, data collection and the opportunities and challenges we’ve encountered
  • A chance to participate in our data collection
  • Key learnings from the collaborative process and next steps for the project

We share insights into the challenges of implementing best practices and highlight the gaps in intersectional demographic and skills data that inform the reskilling space, particularly in the retail sector. Lastly, we share learnings from our successful project management pivot and how we are continually adapting the project to maximize both short and long-term impact.

To date, we have reviewed over 50 articles, studies, and reports on automation, job pathways, career transitions, skills assessment, and upskilling/reskilling. This literature is primarily from Canada, with a handful of International citations from sources like the World Economic Forum,  McKinsey, and OECD

The resources cover topics including reskilling and upskilling program efficacy, labour market trends, youth employment, and the effects of technology adoption of jobs, work, and education. This environmental scan helped us understand the market and the evolving landscape, explore and validate the project’s solution hypothesis, learn about culturally relevant program design, and gain insight into skills assessments and skills gap perceptions. 

We found that general reskilling programs have proven to be more successful if:

  1. Programs are corporate-led and/or collaborate with employment-sector businesses
  2. Programs are demand-driven (from both workers and employers) and are targeted at specific, strong demand positions (employers are actively hiring and sectors are growing) 
  3. Programs include ‘soft’/’foundational’/’interpersonal’ skills and literacy, numeracy, and digital literacy skills. 
  4. Programs are practical (reduce barriers), hands-on, and experiential, with continued coaching (get to try the jobs, accountability, and group work). 
  5. Programs increase access to training by using multiple modes (in-person, online, etc.)
  6. Programs provide culturally relevant programming for various demographic groups.
  7. Programs deliver shorter, intensive programming and mixed work/study programs. 

Project Steering Committee participant, Tanya Chung-Tiam-Fook, Director of Research, Centre for Indigenous Innovation and Technology, illustrates the critical significance of culturally relevant program design and representative co-creation saying,

“Culturally relevant program design is vitally important for the program/research study to provide positive, long-term impact and value in the lives of participants, and their wider communities. Top-down program development, dominant cultural or corporate paradigms, and institutional expectations for program outcomes can create biases and constraints that hinder the appropriateness and benefit of the program/research for BIPOC participants. The ability to contribute meaning and transformative change within the lives and worlds of BIPOC participants derives from the program being designed and delivered in ways that are attuned and responsive to their particular lived experiences, socio-cultural contexts, priorities and aspirations.”

Our literature review provided a foundation for the essential components of a successful program. It did not answer the critical questions about participant-centred inclusive design, program sustainability, and cross-sector application and adoption, especially when centring on Indigenous and racialized youth. We understand this is a systems problem requiring a multifaceted solution. While many resources outline broad recommendations, more specific learnings and calls to action fell in the ‘what not to do’ category. 

Essentially, what a holistic, sustainable, human-centred solution should look like is not covered in detail in the existing literature.

Fundamentally, we’re interested in data that ensures our program design will both understand and prioritize the unique needs of its future participants. Community-based participatory research is vital to the long-term success of the future program. 

To date, there is very little research and evidence that focuses on retail workers, particularly the career progression of racialized and/or Indigenous youth in precarious retail roles. We have found that information including intersectional demographic data, pay, skills assessments, and job satisfaction is not readily available from retail employers in Canada. We acknowledge that this data may be complex for employers to gather for various reasons. Asking about job satisfaction, skills level, pay, and demographic information unrelated to performance reviews has not been standard. Historically, these questions were seen as potential for bias and conflict related to career acceleration, pay, and performance reviews, amongst other systemic issues.

We plan to leverage our existing research, gain new information and validate program designs with a short-term focus and use recent, primary data at a later stage to inform two different design objectives and outcomes. 

Two design paths allow us to think and act in the short term to address disparities caused by the COVID-19 pandemic while gaining the learnings and information needed to address industry gaps and the evolving landscape and building a program that addresses long-term concerns.

We have stated that further data collection is critical for informed, participant-focused design. We are conducting primary research about the retail sector, career-based skills, and job transitions. 

Who: There are three different surveys. If one of these descriptions looks like you, please contribute to our data collection and complete the corresponding survey

  • Folks who work in retail or have worked in retail in the past three years (age 18 – 29)
  • People, Operations, HR folks at tech companies and start-ups

Retailers. HR, Recruitment, People, Operations folks at existing retail companies.

Link to surveys

The next phase of our project will explore skills language literacy from an experiential lens and consider some of the programming challenges and opportunities that may arise from this concept, particularly as it applies to racialized and Indigenous youth.

The Reskilling Retail Workers Project’s co-creation and cross-sectoral approaches are deliberate in the desire to dismantle systemic barriers for Indigenous and racialized youth to enter and be supported in roles at small businesses and startups. Something we are considering as a fundamental question in the project is: Do reskilling programs also fail because they assume that participants do not have the existing skills? Could these biases and assumptions be part of the disconnect?

Large-scale social change comes from better cross-sector coordination rather than from the isolated intervention of individual organizations. With this in mind, we will also explore the role that the Canadian retail sector, Indigenous businesses (which may be the most “acutely impacted – and most at risk of displacement – by a digital revolution”), the tech and startup ecosystems, and SME network (which accounts for a combined 61.2 percent of job growth in Canada) have to play in solving this complex problem. Much like displaced workers, each sector has a unique set of individual challenges and needs and also has a critical role to play in informing, co-creating, and adopting a holistic solution.

Looking ahead to the project’s design phase, which will include a program sustainability framework as well as curriculum elements, the Project Steering Committee and design phase subcommittee contributors will participate in design thinking sessions to establish core program concepts for prototyping and testing.

As we work toward a solution, we remain grounded in our philosophy that cross-sector leadership, Collective Impact, and community-based participation are imperative to the success of the project. 

Read about our previous phase “Cross-Sector Leadership A Framework for Collaboration,”

Download the full report here.

Una Lounder Una is a graduate of the MMIE (Master of Management Innovation and Entrepreneurship)...