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Hub Dialogue: Labour policy needs to keep up with the data

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Podcast & Video

In this Hub Dialogue, The Hub’s editor-at-large Sean Speer speaks to Workforce WindsorEssex CEO Justin Falconer about his organization’s proprietary data platform which collects and analyses online job postings across most of Ontario to see which employers are most hiring and which jobs are most in demand.

This conversation has been revised and edited for length and clarity.

Sean Speer

I’m pleased to speak today with Justin Falconer who is the CEO of Workforce WindsorEssex, which is a regional workforce and community development board in Windsor-Essex with the mandate to support employment and community planning in the region.

Under Justin’s leadership, Workforce WindsorEssex has developed a powerful tool, WE Data Tools, which collects and aggregates onlines job postings in the region and increasingly across the province to both help jobseekers find employment and to better understand labour market trends in Ontario.

We are pleased to partner with Workforce WindsorEssex to publish monthly reports on the trends that Justin and his highly-capable team are identifying in terms of in-demand jobs and employers. The first report for the month of September is available here.

Justin Falconer

Thanks for having me today and for the opportunity to share our research and data.

Sean Speer

Thanks for joining me, Justin. Why don’t you start by telling us a bit about Workforce WindsorEssex, including how you help employers and workers in the Windsor-Essex region?

Justin Falconer

Workforce WindsorEssex is a not-for-profit workforce and community development board. We are one of 26 workforce planning boards across Ontario. Our job is to help employers and workers by carrying out research, support training, stakeholder engagement, and various other activities.

One project that we are really proud of is our data tool platform, which collects and tracks real-time labour market data in the region. We are now licensing this data tool to other workforce planning boards across the province so they can better serve employers and employees in their regions.

Sean Speer

Let’s talk about that. You alluded that you have some core functions that are common with other workforce development boards across the province, but you’ve also been a bit entrepreneurial. You’ve created this new data platform that you call WE Data Tools.

You designed it initially with the goal of serving workers and employers in your region, and it has become a tool that you’re now providing to other workforce planning boards. Do you want to explain the genesis of WE Data Tools, and what it’s able to do to help workers and employers in your region, and increasingly across the province?

Justin Falconer

There were a couple of things that helped drive the creation of the WE Data Tools platform. As a workforce planning board, we are often doing research on the labour market. We’re generating reports, carrying out projects, holding events, talking to young people about careers, speaking to educators about how occupations and sectors are changing, meeting with trainers, unions, and economic developers about what’s happening in our community and what we need to be doing differently or better. In order to carry out this core work, we needed better data.

We were purchasing data from other providers and we just found it wasn’t local enough. It didn’t include our local agencies, associations, or our employment organizations in town. The result is that the job posting data for the region was incomplete. Also, we had to clean the data each time we used it.

It’s probably a consequence of organizations who do kind of work this starting at the national level, and then trying to become more helpful in local communities. Our whole initiative has been the other way around. We’ve been moving from community to community, trying to do everything we can to understand the local labour market demands in that community, and then moving to the next one, and next one. We’ve been building that network over time in our region, developing synergies with service providers. In Windsor-Essex alone, we now get anywhere from 6,500 to 8,000 jobseekers a month using our platform because we are aggregating as many as 56 different job boards and deduplicating the job postings.

WE Data is essentially deduplicating about half of all the job postings we find, so it’s available in a single website, making it less frustrating for jobseekers to search. They’re not seeing the same posting twice. When jobseekers find a job posting that they like, they are then referred to the original job board. If anything, we’re a lot like a Google search or Trivago in that way. We’re just trying to send people to the right destination where they could go and apply, and that’s keeping things simple for employers. We actually don’t expect employers to do anything differently because our goal is to pick up what employers are already posting.

Sean Speer

Based on our various conversations, I’ve come to think of WE Data as almost like a fishing trawler that trawls the seabed of the job posting sites in a particular region to pull all of those postings into a single searchable function. But it also enables prospective jobseekers to be able to provide some customized criteria around the jobs that they want to see based on their interest, skill level, or educational attainment. It’s quite customizable to the experiences and preferences of individual jobseekers.

But while the tool is primarily designed to help connect jobseekers to prospective jobs, it also gives you and the team a unique vantage point to look at labour markets on a local, regional, or provincial basis and see which occupations seem to be in most need of labour and which firms are doing the most hiring.

Do you want to talk about what it has enabled you and the team at the Workforce WindsorEssex to be able to do in terms of evaluating macro trends in your regionalised labour market as well as increasingly across the province as more and more workforce planning boards adopt the tool?

Justin Falconer

For individuals, the tool set can be used anonymously; but what’s really powerful is that users can tell us a bit more about themselves, and we can personalize it and give really detailed labour market information that pertains to the jobs that somebody is seeking based on their interests, skills, and experience.

But then there’s the bigger picture. As you said, WE Data trawls all of these jobs posts, and then consolidates, deduplicates, and aggregates them in a way that gives us great, detailed labour market information that is highly valuable for informing decision-making about public policy, skills training, and educational programming.

I think workforce boards have a unique role to play in collecting this granular, real-time data using the platform, and in turn can help to steer a conversation about making policy and workforce development programs more responsive to what’s actually happening on the ground. We’re proud to contribute to these efforts.

Sean Speer

You’ve been doing this for some time and increasingly have a combination of a localized data and province-wide data. What are some of the things present in the data that might surprise The Hub’s readers? Are there certain occupations or broader trends that may not be reflected in mainstream discourse about labour markets in Ontario, but that you’re seeing consistently in your data?

Justin Falconer

There are some trends that may be surprising. Let me just give one example: if you were to pick up the newspaper and see who’s hiring and where the labour demand is coming from, you’d probably read about new, emerging, and innovative sectors and occupations. And, of course, that’s true to an extent. But some of the biggest hiring employers in our province are not necessarily who you read about every day. There’s a ton of hiring coming from large, long-standing, and customer-facing companies like Walmart, McDonald’s, Amazon, Loblaws, Home Depot, Shoppers Drug Mart, Staples, Bell Canada, and some of the banks. These firms are putting up a lot of postings, routinely every month, and they are really driving the job hiring right now in the province. They’re sort of the outstanding, big performers in the labour market.

Sean Speer

That’s interesting. So, notwithstanding the ups and downs of new or emerging sectors, these foundational employers seem to persist in the data.

One final question: As the worst of the unemployment consequences of the pandemic improves, and the more long-term secular trend of labour market shortages is re-exposed, what do you think policymakers, employers, and jobseekers ought to be doing in a world in which we’re going to be facing job shortages on an ongoing, sustained basis?

Justin Falconer

It’s really important to understand and follow the data. Then, based on the data, we need to make sure that we’re aligning our strategies including with respect to education and skills training.

Our view at Workforce WindsorEssex is that we all have a role to play in improving the Ontario labour market and the Canadian labour market. We are much more effective when we’re working from the same data set or working from the same playbook in terms of where the opportunities are and what’s changing or emerging.

Let me give you another example: as the worst aspects of the pandemic have started to subside, we’ve seen changes in new occupations that are getting to the top-10 list in terms of employer demand that weren’t necessarily there before, including material handlers and delivery and courier service drivers. There are more and more of these occupations, and they’re continuously changing because businesses and their business models are evolving to compensate or deal proactively with some of the ongoing health restrictions or changes in where people are living and working. The point is that policymakers must stay attuned to these regional and local developments and ensure that workforce development policies are keeping up. We hope that we can be part of these efforts and WE Data is one means by which we can help.

Sean Speer

Thank you, Justin. I appreciate the chance to speak to you as part of this Hub Dialogue and we’re looking forward to publishing monthly analysis from your team on what WE Data Tools is telling you about some of these big macro trends in the Ontario labour market.

You and the team should be proud of your contribution to our understanding of these really complex, highly localized issues for which more data is self-evidently useful.

Justin Falconer

Thank you so much for the opportunity.

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