Preparing Canada’s Workforce for the Future
- There is a divide among workers who feel that disruptive technologies will benefit them, present no changes, or disadvantage them.
- Members of underrepresented groups are the most vulnerable workers when it comes to the disruption of the workforce with changing skills requirements.
- There needs to be more research to understand evolving work systems and the changing needs for skills in various industries.
Companies need to think outside of the box to find ways to help their employees adjust to the disruptive changes coming to the workforce. Measures such as skill assessments, the cultivation of a culture of intrapreneurship and continuous learning can help current employees develop the skills they need for the future economy.
What are the main forces shaping the future of skills in Canada?
Three main challenges need to be considered to better understand skill gaps as they present themselves during the pandemic period, or as they have presented themselves throughout important organizational changes that have come due to the acceleration of disruptive technologies. The first one is the great deal of uncertainty on the part of organizations. We know that work processes are bound to change but we do not know how they are going to change. We need to look at how to diagnose problems for organizations. We need to understand how work systems are going to evolve due to disruptive technologies.
The second challenge is related to the first one and refers to the ability to anticipate needed skills and evaluate those already considered as key on the job market. All government organizations, education institutions, and stakeholders in the labour market are trying to identify these skills and new skill dimensions that take into account soft skills, digital skills, and complex solving skills. We need more holistic, multidisciplinary, and cross-functional skills to exceed the capabilities of artificial intelligence.
We need more holistic, multidisciplinary, and cross-functional skills to exceed the capabilities of artificial intelligence.
The third challenge would be being able to think outside the box and trying to succeed where we have not been successful so far. We have to find the means to compensate for gaps in terms of capacities and skills. This means that we need more collaborative initiatives to develop new skills and improve skills in professional, vocational, and academic institutions as well as in community organizations and workplaces to become more accountable for the development of adult skills. All these initiatives need to be supported by institutions and government policies that facilitate and share platforms.
What does your most recent research on skills development show for Canada’s future workforce?
I conducted field research between April 2019 and April 2020, so it covers the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. Two thousand respondents took part in this survey, which aimed at examining the impact of digital technologies and artificial intelligence on jobs and skill gaps that may result from these organizational transformations.
First, the survey asked for the participants’ opinions on the transformations that have affected their jobs. Then, we asked them to identify the cross-functional skills that would be required in various sectors and training areas. Third, we asked them to identify organizational actions that could develop these skills. We paid attention to individuals based on their demographic profile including gender, age, and whether they were members of underrepresented groups.
The results are fascinating. Almost 40% of participants in our survey perceived an improvement in their working conditions due to technology, which is a good thing. Approximately 40% anticipated no change and 17% believed that they will experience a decline in job quality. When asked about their anticipated difficulty of finding a job in the same occupation or field, 26% expressed greater ease in finding jobs in their field, 25% expressed greater difficulty in doing so, and almost 50% noted no change.
Almost 40% of participants in our survey perceived an improvement in their working conditions due to technology, which is a good thing.
We are now living in a very polarized setting with those who think they are going to be better off with technology and artificial intelligence, a majority that thinks nothing will change, and many who think that they are very vulnerable in the labour market.
From the research I conducted, we live in a world where expertise is valued and this is a good thing. However, not all training, academic, or professional programs develop the needed soft skills, digital skills, and problem-solving skills that are needed to weather transformation in the workplace. I analyzed 10 job families in my study and findings show that participants working in management jobs are most likely to develop more cross-functional and soft skills. On the other hand, participants working in science jobs, which are generally more specialized, appear more reluctant to develop content management or social skills. Respondents who work in the information technology (IT) field appear to be more proficient in cognitive, technical, and systems skills but less proficient in social skills. The higher the education level is, the more likely cross-functional and social skills are mastered. In smaller companies, social management skills are also more likely to be mastered. In larger firms, technical and system skills are more likely to be mastered.
More research is needed and my current project with the Future Skills Centre and the Diversity Institute is trying to examine how employers view the skills needed from their employees in relation to the changes they anticipate and the industries in which they operate.
Which groups of Canadian workers face the most hurdles in employment and developing future skills?
In our research, we paid particular attention to the situation of women, older workers, and members of minority groups. Studies argue that disruptive technologies may exacerbate existing inequalities in the representations of vulnerable groups in skilled and quality jobs. In our findings, we saw that while women represented 69% of respondents, they were mostly present in job families related to health and administration and much less in manufacturing and IT, and these sectors are in the midst of important changes to come. Additionally, women were confident that their skills and employability are good but women consistently reported lower cognitive managerial, technical, and systems skills. Seven percent of our respondents reported belonging to an underrepresented group such as ethnocultural minorities, racial minorities, Indigenous, or persons with disabilities, and the results clearly show that despite their low representation in the sample, they are in a more vulnerable situation. More members of underrepresented groups are working in jobs outside their field of training. They are also more concerned about the value of their current skills for the next few years and they are more fearful about the possibility of finding another satisfying job. They were also more likely to believe that technology will replace a greater proportion of their skills.
What must be done by key stakeholders to create a better-prepared workforce?
We have to look at new ways of developing skills and more collaborative initiatives to develop these skills. In the workplace, collaborations can be implemented that give more confidence to employees to try new things. There can be more communication such as encouraging learning by giving time to individuals and rewarding them for learning. We can allow more time to build trusting relationships and always give feedback. In addition, risk-taking and the development of global thinking are very important. Recognize people who take initiative, give individuals control over the resources they need to do their jobs, and support employees who take risks. A third component would be training, shadowing, mentoring, and learning from experienced colleagues and supervisors. Provide regular skill assessment and feedback to employees, which are things that many organizations do not do. Go through assessments and make sure your organization has a learning culture.
Risk-taking and the development of global thinking are very important. Recognize people who take initiative, give individuals control over the resources they need to do their jobs, and support employees who take risks.
Another component would be to always evaluate and measure. Create systems to measure gaps between the current level of performance and what is expected. Find measures in terms of time and resources to spend on training. We also need to build communities and make employees participate in assistance measures such as working with external communities that can help meet mutual needs. We have to think outside the box and reinforce training within the workplaces but also in collaborative platforms across organizations.