John Hepburn
CEO & Scientific Director - Mitacs

The Skills and Partnerships Needed for Canada’s Innovation Economy

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  1. Industry needs to partner with academic institutions to make work-integrated learning possible.
  2. The government needs to support industry in becoming more innovative and the appropriately skilled workforce can help that transition.
  3. Universities need to be aware of what they cannot do to train the future workforce and use collaborations to provide students with the skills they need.


The innovation economy needs talent that has training outside of the university and beyond traditional work-integrated learning. Organizations like Mitacs are well-positioned to create the necessary partnerships between universities and industries in order to support the next generation of skilled workers for the innovation economy.

What are the forces currently shaping the future of work and skills development?

We are seeing in this time of pandemic a lot of the forces playing out in a very accelerated fashion because of remote work, and the reliance on digital infrastructure, but these forces have been in play for a long, long time.

The traditional economy, which is manufacturing and resource-based, is becoming less important and what some people call the knowledge economy—the economy based on intangible assets and infrastructure—is becoming more important. Jobs are shifting into the service economy, into an economy that requires more education, comfort with so-called digital-natives—basically an economy that relies more on ideas than on manufacturing. Globalization played a role in this as manufacturing got shipped overseas to lower waged markets, and so working on design, on creativity, and on jobs that really require a higher level of performance and much more versatility are becoming more and more important.

Has COVID-19 accelerated these megatrends?

There is the often-repeated adage that working remotely was not really working prior to the pandemic, and so it was a special privilege to be allowed to work from home and there was always a suspicion that maybe you were not really working. With the pandemic, everybody has had to work from home if it was possible, and we know a lot of people—millions and millions of people in Canada—have lost jobs because they could not work remotely, especially in the tourism industry and a lot of sectors in the service industry. But we have seen in fact people can work from home, they can work remotely—productivity has not declined in areas where remote work is possible—and so this has changed the thinking on what the nature of work is going to be into the future. Are people going to go back to offices or are they going to continue working from home? What does an office mean and what is the nature of work?

Who are the main stakeholders and what do they need to do during this transition?

Clearly, the educational system has to adapt. There is a great emphasis on disciplined-based credentialling, for a lack of a better word. Universities are very good at training people in technical skills; computer science departments training people to become computer scientists; mechanical engineering departments training people to become mechanical engineers—they are good at that. However, the new economy and the new jobs that we are seeing require skills that go beyond just strictly technical skills and so universities have to adapt to accept this with better work-integrated learning.

“The new economy and the new jobs that we are seeing require skills that go beyond just strictly technical skills.”

Governments need to support innovation, and I kind of alluded to that, where government tends to support more traditional industries and not support innovation quite as well, so governments need to support innovation.

Industry needs to step up. Industry needs to partner with educational institutions to make work-integrated learning possible. Also, industry hires people often based on credentials and then expresses frustration that people do not have the professional skills that they need, so industry needs to be a bit more involved in training and providing their workforce with the skills that are needed, and industry can be flexible. Again, getting back to the pandemic, we see things that were not viewed as being possible before the pandemic are now absolutely possible. If industry could continue in this vein, it could support this versatility of training that their workers need.

“Industry needs to partner with educational institutions to make work-integrated learning possible.”

Finally, I think in Canada we have a problem of productivity and innovation in industry. Industry needs to step up and be more innovative, and government needs to support that and then the appropriately skilled workforce needs to be part of that transition.

What skills will our workforce need to be competitive and innovative in the future economy?

There is a language of hard skills and soft skills, which I actually do not like because it implies that soft skills are not so necessary, not nearly as important as credentials or the hard skills. Credentials are necessary. If somebody is going to be doing machine-learning coding and developing data analysis methodologies or they are going to become doctors or engineers, obviously, you need technical training and that will continue. But they also need professional skills rather than soft skills.

“People need to be versatile, they need to be creative, they need to understand the importance of communication.”

People need to be versatile, they need to be creative, they need to understand the importance of communication—it doesn’t do you any good if you have great ideas but you cannot communicate them. They need to know how to work in teams. We are seeing this with remote work, making connections with your co-workers becomes even more important when you are only seeing people on a Zoom screen. You need to be very comfortable in an increasingly digital infrastructure-based economy. All of these things are very important and they are going to become part of creating the new workforce.

Do we need to think more about the utility of being polymathic and the complementarity of a varied skillset?

One of the problems with the way we educate people is the assumption that we have to cram all the knowledge in about the technical skills and then when they leave the university they are not going to learn anymore, and that is of course completely incorrect.

We have to continue learning throughout life and companies have to allow for that—society has to allow for the assumption that all that you learned as an undergrad is still going to be valid, except for the core skills. Things like mathematics do not change, the laws of physics do not change. The core skills are going to remain the same, but the details of technical training are going to change, and people have to adapt to that.

How do you see education having to adapt over the coming years and what changes do you see being needed to those institutions and others?

First of all, you need to have a knowledge of what it is you can and cannot do and increased openness to collaboration. We have seen this with universities collaborating with technical colleges in their programs. In other words, admitting that there are some things that colleges can probably could do better.

Work-integrated learning is another example. If you consider a classic PhD program, so very advanced education, the people who are engaged in training the PhD students are professors, who probably have never worked outside of the university setting. And so, the vast majority of their students are going to go on and work in a non-university setting. You can train a student to become a professor in the technical discipline-based skills and research methodologies, but they really do not know how industry or government operates. Admitting that, first of all, and then seeking collaborations to fill the gaps so students get a better, more rounded education is one step they can take.

Industry, of course, complains that students do not arrive fully-fledged, they hire people based on credentials and complain that they do not have the professional skills that industry wants them to have. Is it the job of the university to give all the professional skills that a student needs to adapt to the reality of the workforce when people providing those skills do not know exactly what is needed in government, industry, not-for-profits, and other non-academic institutions? Again, collaboration is key.

“Collaboration and openness to the things that you cannot do is necessary on all sides.”

Industry needs to do its part in terms of doing the training that is necessary, providing the skills that are necessary, and hiring based on skills rather than credentials. In general, collaboration and openness to the things that you cannot do is necessary on all sides.

How can these skills best be developed and fostered?

For the students, the answer is obvious—they need to incorporate stages outside of the university into their training. They need to spend time away from the university, away from university laboratories, in an industry setting or a not-for-profit setting, working with community groups—just something that is not the pure academic training that most students focus their attention on. They also need to recognize that that is actually adding to their university training. It is not “instead of” but it is incorporating into.

In the reverse direction, where people are out working in industry already and they have paying jobs, that is something I think we need to work harder at—and we are not doing it very well.

“Lifelong learning can go on as long as somebody is in the workforce and of course, beyond.”

Industries should be willing to allow people to step away from whatever they are doing to seek training. We see this at management level, with people being allowed to do executive MBAs and things like that, but I could see it on a more general level where people retain their connection with the company—they continue getting paid perhaps in partnership with an organization like Mitacs or an equivalent organization, and they do something different to improve their skills, which is part of lifelong learning. That needs to be emphasized throughout our career. Lifelong learning can go on as long as somebody is in the workforce and of course, beyond.

What is Mitacs’ role?

Mitacs’ role is partnership creation. Everything we do is based on training, , in that students are involved and post-doctoral fellows are doing internships. But really, the core of Mitacs is to identify problems in a non-academic setting—so industry for example—and then seek help from an academic institution, from the professors and the students in a university who can work together with industry in a true partnership to solve the problem, and the people doing the work are going to be the students in the post-doctoral fellows.

It is different from work-integrated learning, which is valuable no matter what type of work it is. But in a standard co-op job placement, the student leaves the university behind and goes to work in industry. And that is great for the student because they learn life in the “real world,” but it does not help the university. The student does not transmit that knowledge back to the university.

Mitacs’ model of partnership creation and solving problems by using university talent and coupling it with industry need has an impact both on industry and on the university. It creates a bridge that ultimately will last beyond the particular student internship.

What sort of partnerships and collaborations are best for implementing skill development programs?

At Mitacs we reverse the traditional method of technology transfer, where ideas get generated in a university or post-secondary institution and then basically get sold outside the institution. Our business development people talk to non-academics, to industry, to not-for-profits and try to understand what their problem is—and they are very skilled people who are highly trained themselves.

Once they have a good understanding of what the issue is, then they seek partners from academia who are willing and able to work on the problem. The bigger the problem, the more people they need, and they may need the multidisciplinary approach, and so you tailor the partnership based on the problem.

We have been doing a lot of work recently with COVID-19. One example is a problem that was solved that the company did not know that they were capable of solving. It was based on a partnership we have with a company that manufactures power modules—these are things in  shipping containers for remote communities, for sustainable energy—so that you could bring the containers in, plug them in and they were ready to go to become part of the local electricity grid.

“The bigger the problem, the more people they need, and they may need the multidisciplinary approach, and so you tailor the partnership based on the problem.”

The PhD student who was working with this company on this specific project, which was the originally defined partnership, recognized that his expertise could be used to build portable clinics. You could use the same shipping containers, and you put in the HVAC and power, and basically these things become completely autonomous clinics. That is an example of a smart student working with an existing partnership between a university and a company to solve a problem that the company did not really set out to solve.

One that would be a more relevant partnership that was constructed would be a partnership where a company was working on technology to test wastewater for nasty chemicals. Of course, you have heard a lot of talk about wastewater being tested for COVID-19. Well, they recognized that we can do the same thing, and so a partnership was created based on the existing partnership to do exactly that. Other examples are more traditional, like working with companies on 5G technology, for example.

Basically, the problems that we like to work on are problems that have potentially a research-based solution. They take full advantage of the knowledge that is available in universities to create a new technology or innovate an existing process. That is the sort of problem we work on and we do thousands of them each year.

You have 30 seconds to pitch a person or even a group in a position of power. Who would you choose to pitch to prepare Canada’s workforce for the future of work, what would you urge this person or this group to do?

My pitch to the federal government is that the innovation economy is based on talent and the talent that we need has training beyond university training. They have training that is beyond traditional work-integrated learning. They have training that is a partnership at all levels—partnerships between universities and industry, between industry and government—and Mitacs is perfectly positioned as an independent organization to create these partnerships. We have a proven track record of partnership creation to support the training of the next generation of skilled workers for the innovation economy.

John Hepburn
CEO & Scientific Director - Mitacs

Bio: John Hepburn is the CEO & Scientific Director of Mitacs and currently the Vice-President of Research and Partnerships at CIFAR. John has extensive academic and research experience and has served as the Dean of the Faculty of Science and Head of the Department of Chemistry at the University of British Columbia. John holds a PhD in Chemistry from the University of Toronto.


Organization Profile: Mitacs is a not-for-profit organization that fosters growth and innovation in Canada by solving business challenges with research solutions from academic institutions at home and around the world. Mitacs is funded by the Government of Canada and works with over 100 post-secondary institutions in every province.