Quebec vs. Windsor

A tale of two cities and their lessons of economic resilience

Quebec vs. WindsorAt the headquarters of the Canadian Council on Learning in downtown Ottawa, researchers have an animated chart they use to demonstrate the relationship between learning and the job market.

It’s a standard graph: unemployment rate up the vertical axis, and the CCL’s Composite Learning Index (CLI) across the horizontal. The dots are Canadian cities. And the dots move to show how the cities evolved along both measures from 2006 to 2009.

Also at Maclean’ Canada’s smartest cities: Will yours help you thrive in tough times, or leave you to fall behind? Now, more than ever, it matters. — And see how your hometown ranks on the learning index

Two of the dots perform an eloquent dance over that period. In 2006 Quebec City stood at 66 on the CLI, well behind Windsor, Ont., at 75. But Windsor is nearly static since then, rising to 76 before falling to 74. Quebec City, on the other hand, roars well to the right of its original position, from 66 in 2006 to 76 in 2009. Only Fredericton has increased its CLI score more rapidly over the past three years.

But it’s what happens to unemployment in Quebec City and Windsor that’s most telling. While it’s been making those rapid advances in learning, catching up to Windsor’s score and then passing it, Quebec City’s unemployment has fallen markedly, from 6.8 per cent in 2006 to 5.2 per cent in 2009. And while Windsor’s total learning score was going nowhere, its jobless rate shot up, from 10.2 per cent to 15.2 per cent over the same period.

That’s an exaggerated version of a trend CCL investigators have noticed throughout their results: a higher score on the Composite Learning Index, expressing better learning conditions, makes a community more likely to prosper economically and socially.

“This brings up the idea of resilience,” Paul Cappon, the CCL’s president, says.

A population that’s better educated and better able to learn has a better chance of “responding and accommodating successfully to the slings and arrows of everyday life.”

The extent of that phenomenon is being tested right now by the economic recession—this year’s CLI is based on data from before the boom—and will be borne out in future editions of the learning survey. Cappon predicts the recession will bring a decline in “learning to do” scores across the country, as tighter budgets lead businesses and employees to spend less on on-the-job training. “I hope I’m wrong,” he says.

If he’s right, Quebec City’s fast progress could stall. Its rapid progress in the CLI is due almost entirely to a huge increase in “learning to do,” or workplace education and training.

Part of that is due to a Quebec-wide improvement in on-the-job learning opportunities, thanks to an act passed by Lucien Bouchard’s Parti Québécois government in 1995 that requires businesses to set aside one per cent of their budget to employee skills development. That law has allowed the province to make up ground, where it once lagged behind the Canadian average.

But “learning to do” has progressed much more quickly in Quebec City than the rest of the province. Cappon’s hunch is that that’s because of a startling urban-development success story, the renaissance of the St. Roch district in Quebec’s lower town. Since 2000 a succession of mayors have moved municipal offices and taxpayer dollars to the neighbourhood, transforming it from a run-down high-unemployment zone into a showcase for arts, tech companies and university satellite campuses. All those tech companies put a high priority on employee training.

Windsor and Quebec City actually have a lot in common. They’re just at different stages in their municipal history. Traditional industry collapsed in Quebec City half a century ago, and the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s were a very difficult period in the city’s history. Only the presence of a hefty and booming provincial government, which guaranteed plenty of office towers would stay full of bureaucrats, cushioned the fall. But Quebec City had years to mourn the end of old ways; it’s now well into a post-industrial renaissance.

In Windsor the collapse of heavy industry is still happening. Its central features are the continuing economic horror story of Detroit, Windsor’s far larger twin just across the Detroit River, and the never-ending crisis of the automotive industry. The old ways won’t die in Windsor, although like Monty Python’s parrot they’re not looking very good these days. So new ways are slower to arrive.

Still, the CCL survey shows a couple of bright spots in Windsor. It’s made progress on “learning to know,” thanks to higher participation in post-secondary education. And Windsor has seen an uptick in “learning to do,” though not as strongly as Quebec City. Cappon worries that the increase in on-the-job learning in Windsor might not be as valuable either, if its employees move from one automotive production line to another. “The big question going forward will be, are those new skills transferable?” he says.

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