On Campus

Labour Market Reentry - The Ultimate Captive Student

When workers are hurt on the job, it may only be the start of their problems. Just wait until the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board sends them back to school.

I haven’t talked much about what I’m doing this summer, but I’m working at a student legal clinic where we represent injured workers through their dealings with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB). It’s a good job, and I could write for pages about it, but it would be more than a little off topic for this site. What is on topic, however, is an aspect of what the WSIB does called “Labour Market Reentry” or just LMR.

In a nutshell, when a worker is hurt on the job the ideal outcome is to support the worker through rehabilitation and return to the same job. But sometimes that isn’t possible. Imagine a construction worker who has lost the full use of one arm, or a truck driver who is no longer qualified to drive because of some impairment. Then the WSIB kicks up their LMR program, designed to get the worker back on the market in some other job.

It all sounds very good, but really it comes down to some very brutal math. A worker who has been hurt is entitled to support from the WSIB. The WSIB doesn’t want to pay that support all the way to age 65 and retirement, so if it’s cheaper to put the worker back to school that’s what happens. It’s not altruistic. It’s the barest kind of pragmatism.

As a result of LMR, I end up working with a lot of clients who are going back to school. Women and men in their 30’s and 40’s and 50’s who have been injured on the job and now are retraining to do some other job. And more and more I see their experiences as simply another reflection of various problems that are at work in our education system.

To begin with, these students made no considered decision to return to school. When a worker is injured and can’t return to pre-accident employment that worker’s benefits depend on cooperation with the LMR process. So in order to avoid losing all income and ending up on welfare (a real danger – I’m not exaggerating) the worker may literally be forced back into school.

The worker does have some input into suitable fields of employment but not the final say. And there are times, especially where the worker was making a good pre-accident income that may be difficult to fully replace, where the WSIB does some pretty stupid things – like imagining that a career truck-driver in his 40’s can be successfully retrained as a laboratory technician, despite the fact that he never even passed high school science.

Here’s an issue that I’ve been on about for years. Unwilling students are unsuccessful students. Of course it’s nice that injured workers have the opportunity to retrain and some of them embrace it, but there’s nothing magical about getting hurt on the job that transforms a 9-5 employee into a student. Being a student is really about headspace and attitude. Simply enrolling a person into an educational program doesn’t do it.

In addition to the problem of the unwilling student, I also see gross over-promising at work in the LMR system. Again, this is a huge problem in mainstream education, where students are led to entirely unrealistic expectations regarding (for example) the earning potential of your average BA. But in this case the students aren’t victims of their own inflated expectations, but rather of inflated systemic assumptions.

As soon as a student finishes the LMR process, that student is very likely to be “deemed” at the average income for the job just trained for. No consideration for the difficulty of finding that job, no allowance for the fact that older adults (injured ones, no less) have a harder time securing employment, no allowance for sincere efforts resulting in under-employment. If you’ve been trained to be a refrigerator repairman then as soon as you’re done your course you’d better find work, because you’ll be assumed to earn that average salary anyway. And the “averages” used here look anything but average to me.

Even though education still pays off in the aggregate, it often takes even typical students a long time to secure stable jobs and to enjoy that benefit. Many students are left at loose ends after they are out of school. Often they fall back on jobs they held before or during studies (service sector, mostly) to make ends meet until they can find better jobs in their fields. Frequently they move home with family in order to help with that transition. A student going through the LMR process, by contrast, is actually disabled from his or her previous job. That’s the entire issue. And family, as often as not, means dependents who need support rather than parents who can provide it.

Finally, there’s the question of quality and the “buyer beware” marketplace out there. Students in LMR programs are usually training in vocational fields – which typically means college. But public colleges generally work on the academic year – starting in September – and workplace injuries occur at inconvenient times. So students are shunted off to private career colleges, which make up in convenience what they lack in legitimacy. You’ve seen these places advertising on the subway. Train now for a new career in just 27 weeks! Oh they charge an arm and a leg, but if it’s a LMR situation it’s probably cheaper to pay for the fast option rather than support the worker for a longer period until September rolls around.

These minimally regulated for-profit institutions have always irked me. Macleans.ca ran a number of stories on this subject, especially regarding for-profit institutions in B.C. But at least the “buyer beware” scenario has some logic to it. I can invest in a bad car just as I can invest in a bad education, and I have at least some responsibility as a consumer to be informed. But in a LMR situation the student is not actually the buyer. It’s the WSIB that’s paying for the program. So students are sometimes forced into the faster, easier options, when in fact they could certainly qualify for better education, if only the WSIB would wait for that.

I’ve been dying to write on this subject for ages. It’s a big part of what I’m doing this summer. What fascinates me about LMR is that it proves the utter ubiquity of these issues and problems. Education, as a social issue, cuts right through society and isn’t only relevant to 20-somethings. How we understand education, and the way we structure it, is relevant to everyone. Sometimes it becomes very relevant again when you least expect it.

And by the way, please be careful at work. It’s nice we have a system of workplace insurance, and I trust it’s better than nothing, but I wouldn’t wish dealing with it on my worst enemy.

Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.