Canada

Can a youth ‘army’ bring digital tools to businesses? The Liberal government is counting on it

However, the federal government doesn’t yet have the details of when the program will start or who will be eligible

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The Liberals’ budget has the money for an army of young people to aid small businesses transitioning to the digital age, but it can’t yet say when that army will be deployed.

The budget put aside a total of $4 billion for a variety of measures aimed at helping businesses adapt to online sales. The Canada Digital Adoption program was part of that and received $1.4 billion over four years, including money to put 28,000 young Canadians on the government payroll and send them to small businesses looking to sell online.

Small Business Minister Mary Ng said the money is about getting local shops across the country online, to adapt to a new reality.

“We are in the digital economy, customers have changed their patterns because of COVID-19, and I don’t want any Canadian businesses left behind,” she said.

I don’t want any Canadian businesses left behind

The budget estimates that the money will be able to pay for the 28,000 trainers as well as for micro-grants to help small businesses cover some of the initial start-up costs. The program builds on one run in Ontario called digital main street that helped small businesses start selling online last year during the pandemic.

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Ng said she knows many businesses are already online, but there is more they can do. She also handles the trade portfolio and believes many businesses could go beyond just curbside pickup and into global sales

“There is opportunity here for businesses to start up to scale up into access to those new markets. And I think digital is absolutely a tool for them to do that,” she said.

The government doesn’t yet have the details of when the program will start or who will be eligible. Ng said all of those details will be worked out. In addition to basic e-commerce sites, Ng said they’re hopeful it could help companies with digital inventory and marketing systems as well.

She said they also hope it will be a boost for the 28,000 people hired as part of the program and lead to long-term change.

“I hope that some of these young people will also be the employees of some of the companies that they may be working with, maybe some of these young people may even do something on their own.”

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Corinne Pohlmann, a senior vice president at the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses, said a lot of businesses could have used a program like this earlier in the pandemic and many made a swift transition online when their storefronts were closed by public health measures.

“We saw it pretty much double in our membership. Prior to the pandemic, we had about 18 to 20 per cent who had e-commerce type platforms and were selling online. And that’s doubled to about 40 per cent,” she said.

Pohlmann said even still the government program could be a help to those that didn’t make the move online or even to businesses that did and need more help.

A survey the CFIB did last month showed about 51 per cent of businesses in Canada saw e-commerce as essential to their business now and 48 per cent plan to keep selling online after the pandemic ends.

The survey also found that roughly 40 per cent of those small businesses that had set up online found attracting customers to their website as the biggest challenge.

Pohlmann said she wants to see the details of the program, but just because many stores already set up websites, doesn’t mean there isn’t more help they could use.

“The intent looks promising, but what it actually looks like in practice will be the real question at the end of the day,” she said. “We got lots of questions around how do you advertise on social media, those kinds of things, in terms of making sure that you understand how to expand your digital presence as well.”

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