Upskilling Canadian Workers for the Digital Transformation
- The only sustainable competitive advantage is innovation, and innovation depends on the ability of workers and end-users to use digital capabilities.
- Companies that invest in training their workers have a more effective workforce but also higher rates of retention.
- The government must collaborate with the private sector and academia in order to deploy skills training programs that are relevant to the workforce.
Millions of Canadians will need to be properly trained in order to keep pace with the rate of innovation needed to power our future economy. The government has to understand the importance of digital adoption and work with all stakeholders to implement proper training programs.
What were the key findings from Amazon’s Global Digital Skills Study and what are the implications for Canada’s future economy?
It will not surprise you to know that the report told us more about what we already knew, which is that as the world continues to digitize across all industries and aspects of government, technological skills will need to be acquired. Globally, there is a gap in terms of the skills needed to help businesses and governments leverage digital capabilities. Of course, that also applies to Canada.
“The only sustainable competitive advantage for businesses or countries is innovation.“
Over the course of my career, and most acutely over the course of the last six years with AWS, I have come to realize that the only sustainable competitive advantage for businesses or countries is innovation. Increasingly, the ability to innovate depends on companies and governments being able to use digital capabilities to serve customers and citizens. In terms of the evolution of the Canadian economy, it is going to be more and more important that we empower our workers with the skills they need to leverage these digital capabilities.
The survey itself sought out information technology (IT) practitioners as well as what we call end-users. 71% of Canadian workers surveyed said they were not confident that they were acquiring skills fast enough. We need to do something about that.
“6.5 million Canadian workers will need to be trained over the next few years,”
In terms of the number of the skills that need to be acquired, we estimate through the survey that around 6.5 million Canadian workers will need to be trained over the next few years in order to become effective at building tools using these digital capabilities as well as using the digital capabilities themselves. We know from the survey that companies that do invest in empowering their workers with the skills to use digital capabilities have more satisfied and effective workers. They are also better able to retain their workers if they invest in their skills.
How has the pandemic changed the skills we need to compete and what barriers do Canadians face in gaining those skills?
Before the pandemic, no business leader or government leader would have just one day decided to implement working from home. This pandemic was a huge forcing function to cause companies and the government to adapt to a new set of challenges. There were probably people who perhaps never used web conferencing services before but were now compelled to set it up and be comfortable using web technologies. Businesses were forced to adapt to solutions such as curbside delivery or increase their delivery capabilities. The pandemic forced companies and the government to adapt and lean on technology.
Through that, many businesses discovered that they did not have the skills in-house to quickly leverage these digital technologies. Whenever there is any kind of change, particularly technology change, it requires the people going to use these tools to be comfortable migrating and adapting to those new approaches.
“The majority of applications will move to the cloud because it is effective at helping customers focus on leveraging tools as opposed to owning and operating infrastructure.“
The pandemic forced the adoption of cloud-based services, which brought a level of innovation and capability that many customers did not experience before. There has been a huge interest in accelerating the adoption of these capabilities. Over the course of time, the majority of applications will move to the cloud because it is effective at helping customers focus on leveraging tools as opposed to owning and operating infrastructure. In order to do that, we need the skills to build, manage and deploy solutions into this environment and we need our end-users to be skilled in using these solutions as well.
As a company, AWS works with many other entities on trying to ensure that we can equip people with the skills they need to leverage these new capabilities. One manifestation of that is a service we launched recently called AWS Skills Builder. It is a new digital learning experience that is online and free. It is available to anybody to go and use. There are 500 courses on there with a whole range of different elements that are relevant to different people in that continuum of digital usage as well as practitioners on the IT side. We have made a global commitment as a company to train 29 million people by 2025.
What should the government do to get 6.5 million Canadians trained in the next few years?
6.5 million Canadian workers probably equate to the vast majority of adult workers in the country. This indicates that basically everybody needs to get more comfortable using technological tools.
The government should work with the private sector to create opportunities for people to acquire skills. Those opportunities need to be applied broadly from an education perspective through academic institutions, as well as on all the work that is done to make sure people enter the workforce with a set of skills. There is a very specific focus on encouraging more entrance into the IT sector because that is an area where there is high demand for new roles. It is an area where there are lots of high-paying jobs and it is going to be a big part of our future economy in Canada. It will be relevant in helping companies equip their existing workers with acquiring these new skills and using these new capabilities.
It is important that the government works with the private sector and academia to look at the full continuum of how we can help all our workers acquire the skills they need to be effective in the roles they are in, whether they are IT practitioners or end-user.
“It is very powerful to bring government focus with private sector investment and academic institutions to create an environment where these skills are available.“
It is very powerful to bring government focus with private sector investment and academic institutions to create an environment where these skills are available. AWS spends a lot of time advocating the government and working closely with them to create environments where we can make these skills available and highlight the importance of every organization investing in helping their workers acquire skills. We have a focus on encouraging more entrance into the workforce, specifically in the IT space.
It is important that we help businesses and the government understand the art of the possible. They need to learn what is contemporary now, what these digital technologies really mean, how they can be applied and why they are relevant to Canada.
One of the things we have instituted is a program called AWS DigiGov. It is a program for public sector employees because it is important that we spend some time and energy helping our government officials and bureaucrats learn about the importance of technology, how to apply it within government and how to advocate for it to the wider Canadian market. We piloted this with the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute, and it has been rolled out into a much wider audience across government to help our government workers. It is important for our leaders to understand why we must keep creating programs and looking for opportunities to collaborate with the private sector to drive the adoption of digital skills.
What has to be done in Canada to increase diversity and inclusion in our digitally-skilled labour force?
Firstly, this can only be done if diversity is something that we all truly care about. It starts with a real appreciation of what the value of diversity is. This is something AWS and Amazon are committed to. It has to start with an acknowledgement of the value of diversity before you can look at what can be done to encourage a diverse workforce. Next, you have to ask how you can ensure that once they are in your environment, they are included and you get to maximize the potential of that diversity.
For a long time, the IT sector especially has struggled with attracting women into its workforce. That is something that we want to focus on. Then, the fast rate of adoption of digital technologies has meant that many people we want to engage in our workforce were left behind.
We need to make sure that we meet people where they are to give them opportunities to engage with and acquire the skills they need to participate in this digital workforce. That obviously starts with education, through academia deploying programs that enable students to become more interested in this area and acquire the skills they need. We have some specific programs at AWS such as AWS Educate, which helps academic institutions deploy programs to help people acquire skills and pursue a career in the IT sector.
We also need a specific focus on unemployed and underserved populations. We have to take a very deliberate approach and establish that that is a community we want to engage. AWS re/Start is specifically focused on underemployed and underserved populations, and recently launched a focus on Indigenous peoples. Through this program, we reach out to people and create an environment where they can participate in things like a cloud adoption skills program that would give them an entry point into the IT sector. One of our programs ran in conjunction with the Bank of Montreal (BMO), where they offered internships to people that were part of the program. This gave those people not only an opportunity to acquire some skills but also to get their first opportunity to work for a commercial organization and apply those skills.
“If the pace of innovation is high, then skills development programs need to keep pace with that.“
Another part of that is that once people are in the organizations, we want to focus on retaining them and so there is a focus on ongoing training programs and skills development programs. The digital environment is accelerating and innovating very quickly. If the pace of innovation is high, then skills development programs need to keep pace with that. We need to think about how we deliver training, how people consume it and also continue to evolve so we can continue to help people acquire skills at the rate they need to.