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Pedro Barata
Executive Director - Future Skills Centre

Skills for Canada’s Future Workforce

Published on

Takeaways

  1. Underpinning all skills is the need to be resilient and adaptable in the face of ongoing changes and disruptions to our workplace.
  2. Workplace-based training is one of the best ways for Canadians to learn new skills and increase their productivity.
  3. Social and emotional skills are going to be critical to the future economy, and Canada must embed those skills into training programs across the country.

Action

For Canada to lead on the world stage, we need to incentivize, fund, resource and deliver skills development programs that are responsive to the diverse needs of the workforce and offer holistic career advice and guidance. Canada must also help sectors invest in the necessary infrastructure to digitally transform, which will significantly impact the future of work.


What national and global trends and demographic shifts are impacting the future of work? How do you expect these to develop in the coming years?

We always knew that labour market disruption and change were going to become a feature of our working lives. Over the course of the past few months, we have seen an acceleration and an unprecedented disruption in terms of our workforce. Moving forward, we can certainly expect and hope that the level of instability that we are all experiencing right now will change and become a bit more stable as we head into a recovery. But those kinds of changes in the labor market and in our careers will continue to be a process that will just require more adaptability and nimbleness, and we are seeing it now in spades.

Technology is growing exponentially. The future of work and the future of the economy was always going to be impacted by changes around new technologies like the onset of AI, machine learning and robotics, and of course, here we are—all of us are taking a universal crash course in how to talk to each other more digitally. I think that is an illustration of the kind of changes that we all have to be ready for, and those will become more and more a feature of our workplace.

“The future of work and the future of the economy was always going to be impacted by changes around new technologies.”

We are working right now with sectors—be it healthcare, transportation or manufacturing—that are really recognizing that whatever inertia stood in the way in terms of really embracing new technology, that is melting away. There is an inevitability to what we need to do and if there are some silver linings to this crisis that we are all experiencing, it is the realization that some of this adaptation cannot wait.

Coming into this pandemic, we were already seeing significant gaps based on race, gender, and location, and we are seeing a magnification of those inequities with deep implications for the recovery and how we move forward. The role of public policy is going to be absolutely key in balancing a changing labour market and recognizing that there is going to be a need for more adaptability and ongoing learning for workers. This can create moments of income insecurity and instability in the household if it is not shored up by a good public policy.

“Coming into this pandemic, we were already seeing significant gaps based on race, gender, and location, and we are seeing a magnification of those inequities.”

We are currently in the midst of that conversation, and I think it is critical because that magnification of inequities is a very serious thing.

The final one that I will flag in terms of trends that are not going to go away—and right now we are not paying a whole lot of attention to—is the reality of an aging labor force and the continued importance of immigration to a country like Canada, in terms of moving human capital. Canada has been very good at attracting great talent, and we are going to need to continue to do that. That is a conversation that may not be front and center right now for obvious reasons, but we are going to have to turn back to it quickly because a changing demographic is not going to go away.


What were the findings of the Future Skills Centre’s 2020 Survey on Employment and Skills?

Interestingly and serendipitously, we just happened to be in the field in March and April as the pandemic and its effects were becoming manifest, and we were making a shift—not just in Canada but around the world—in terms of how we work and how we can confront this health pandemic.

What was interesting is that there was already a sense of insecurity among many Canadians even before the pandemic. And we have known that the labour market has changed dramatically over the course of the past few decades, and that there has been a bifurcation into good jobs and not-so-good jobs, or those jobs where you do not have benefits, workplace training, or knowing how many hours you are going to get in a month. That was a reality that many Canadians came into the pandemic with.

Interestingly, as the initial impacts of the pandemic started to play out, Canadians actually reported that although they were feeling uncertain about their labour market prospects across the board, there was nonetheless the sense of some confidence. That confidence for the future was borne out of two things. Canadians still have a strong attachment to their community and trust each other, and that sense of trust helped to balance some of the labour market insecurity. Canadians also had a strong sense that governments were going to be there to support them through these difficult times.

It is important to keep in mind that this was a survey that was conducted before the introduction of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) program and the credits supporting small- and medium-sized enterprises. Interestingly, Canadians had an expectation that governments were going to come forward and backstop some of the losses, and thankfully, the federal government stepped up.

“Canadians also had a strong sense that governments were going to be there to support them through these difficult times.”

We also asked Canadians about technology and how it was impacting their jobs and training. On the technology side, most Canadians actually reported that they see many benefits from technology in their jobs.  Although we tend to paint emerging AI and automation as a threat, instead what we heard is that there is already a lived reality that technology is enabling people’s jobs, and we certainly have to keep our eye on that in terms of technology’s growing influence.

Finally, Canadians who have had workplace-based training—and that was about half of the Canadians in the survey—the vast majority reported that work-based training is really valuable, and it is actually one of the best ways in which Canadians are learning new skills and increasing their productivity.

The challenge is that for half of our sample, they do not have access to workplace-based training, and that is a real gap that we need to be mindful of. If we are truly going to become a learning nation, if we are going to be adaptive to all the changes that will continue to come our way, then we have to make sure that we are addressing that gap and we are helping Canadians know where to go to get the career advice and the follow-up training that they need.


What skills are going to be needed in the future economy, post-COVID, in a world that is going to continue digitizing at a rapid pace?

Digital fluency is going to be part and parcel of just about any job, and I think we also need to understand digital skills are going to look different in terms of skill level, where you are in the labor market, what industry you are in, and what level of complexity you are going to need. But at every level, there is going to have to be a baseline of competencies just like reading, writing and numeracy that have been essential skills for labor market progression. Digital is going to be the same thing.

“Digital fluency is going to be part and parcel of just about any job.”

Employers are increasingly going to be conscious that their workforce needs to be adaptable and responsive to changes. The workforce needs to be able to work in teams, problem solve and have critical skills. We also need to get along, and those which we have typically wrapped under the bundle of soft skills are actually the social and emotional skills which are emerging as the game-changers in terms of skills for the new economy.

If we think about skills as three legs of a stool, there will always be the foundational skills of reading, writing, and numeracy—those will always be key. Within any industry there will also be specific skills related to that sector that will be key and that will be customizable, but underpinning it all is the ability to really have that resilience and adaptation to ongoing changes in the workplace that are going to be innovating and iterating on an ongoing basis. The ability to feel comfortable in that environment and to have both the technical and emotional tools to ride you through some of those changes is really going to be at the heart of success.

“Hopefully, social and emotional skills will become just as critical to curriculum and to how we train as traditional skills, like foundation skills and technical skills.”

One of the challenges that we have now as a country, and really as various jurisdictions, is how to ensure that social and emotional skills are being put front and centre in terms of how we help people succeed. We need to embed those skills into training programs and make them as important as learning engineering or political science. Hopefully, social and emotional skills will become just as critical to curriculum and to how we train as traditional skills, like foundation skills and technical skills.

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What does it mean to become a learning nation and what do we have to do in Canada to become one?

The entire concept of a learning nation is based on the reality that we are all going to be facing changes—changes in our lives and the labour market—and those are going to be widespread. That is the reality, and it is only going to intensify.

When you look at how we formally learn, the ecosystem is not keeping up with the reality facing Canadians. If you think about the continuum of learning right now, it really tends to focus on the formal education system. For those who fall out of the labour market, there is a workforce development component that really focuses on those who need retraining and reskilling, and for those who can afford it throughout their career, you can go back to school, and for those who are in good workplaces you can get it through your workplace.

Most Canadians do not actually fit within that continuum and have no idea where to turn if they are thinking about a new career, a different job, a move up in life—perhaps doing less work and more of what you love as you reach a certain stage in your career—and for anybody along that life cycle.

“If we are going to create a learning nation, the first thing we need to do is to create more doorways into career advice and guidance.”

Some of us have the privilege of actually having access to that through our workplace, but many of us have no place to turn, and even if we knew where to turn, it is not always within one’s reach financially or they may be too busy working two or three jobs to even think about learning.

If we are going to create a learning nation, the first thing we need to do is to create more doorways into career advice and guidance. We need more places that are open to people at all stages in their learning career and in their career progression to be able to turn to and to offer some real customized listening, good diagnostics and support that direct people to opportunities and push them along in their journey. Then we need for those pathways to be accessible and to recognize that not everybody comes from the same place, not everybody learns at the same speed, and we need different approaches for different people. A learning nation is one that recognizes that as the world of work changes so does our skills training approach. Right now, those two things are not really aligned, and we have an opportunity to bring them together.


What would be your call-to-action to Canada and the stakeholders that are part of the conversation about the future of work?

I am afraid I do not have anything revolutionary to say here because in fact, what needs to happen is something that we have been talking about for a long time, and it is only going to become more pressing as we enter a recovery.

It starts with silo breaking, and that certainly is not a new word, but it is more urgent than ever. We need to really start thinking about a skills development ecosystem that stops at its own boundaries and begins to think of each piece as integrated into the next. We need to put people at the center and start to incentivize, fund, resource and deliver programs that are much more responsive to the whole variety and diversity of people’s experiences, and where they will be at different stages of life. We also need to be much more employer driven.

“We need to put people at the center and start to incentivize, fund, resource and deliver programs that are much more responsive to the whole variety and diversity of people’s experiences.”

The way forward, if Canada is going to succeed on a world stage, is we need to think about skills development with a purpose to really help industries transform themselves, innovate and be forward-looking. Within that we have to be silo breaking, be more person centered and make sure that we are demand driven. Those are not new concepts, but the way to get there is to really think about labour market information and have a better sense of how jobs and skills are related.

“Making that link between the labour market, skills data and the needs of educators is really key.”

But also, we need to make sure that information is linked to the ecosystem at skills development and that data is not something you use every three to five years—whenever you are designing a strategic plan or whenever you need a sector study—it is actually something that is much more tailored to the day-to-day of delivering programs that are adaptable to the needs of individuals and the economic reality. Making that link between the labour market, skills data and the needs of educators is really key.

Secondly, I think we need to really raise our game on career advice and guidance. Before somebody even gets into a training program, we need to take a step back and have a much greater ability to just listen and do the right diagnostics about the person’s assets, strengths, and what they want to do with their lives. We have to determine how we are going to help them get there, and not just as a one-off but by actually connecting them to an ecosystem that will have a clear journey that is supported.

Third, sectors and industries are going to need to transform themselves. We need a sector-based strategy 2.0 or 3.0. If sectors are really motivated to embrace new technology like AI, automation, and machine learning it is not going to happen magically. We have to make investments in infrastructure because there is a certain cultural reality and there are certain business models and supply chains that need to adapt. If we are really going to invest in transformation, we have to help sectors and industries create the space that they need to think forward and to do the experiments and piloting that will provide playbooks for the future.

Finally, all of this is really important work, but we need to learn what works through that process. Learning what works and what does not work as we go through this transition period is going to be key. Sometimes we are resistant to opening ourselves up to evaluation and evidence generation, and to saying that some things did not work or that we were wrong, but that is going to be key to any innovation process. Even governments, through their funding programs, should become much more cognizant that they need to be part of the solution in terms of incentivizing that kind of behaviour.

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Pedro Barata
Executive Director - Future Skills Centre

Bio: Pedro Barata is the Executive Director of the Future Skills Centre, bringing two decades of volunteer and career experience in the non-profit sector to the role. He is the former Senior Vice President of Community Impact & Strategy at United Way Greater Toronto and holds a Master’s of Social Work from the University of Toronto.

 

Organization Profile: The Future Skills Centre (FSC) is dedicated to helping Canadians gain new skills that they need to thrive in a changing labour market. It is designed to address the opportunities and threats to the workforce, which is facing technological, environmental, demographic and geopolitical change. FSC prototypes, tests and measures new and innovative approaches to skills development and training.