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Santa Ono - Photo credit to University of British Columbia
Santa Ono
President - University of British Columbia

Skills Training for a Resilient Post-Pandemic Economy

Published on

Takeaways

  1. The pandemic, digital technologies and climate change are the main forces that are shaping the future of work in Canada.
  2. Both STEM-related skills and soft skills will be necessary in the post-pandemic economy.
  3. Government, industry and academia should co-invest in training programs and research to strengthen Canada’s future workforce and economy.

Action

The Prime Minister should convene thought leaders from across all stakeholder groups—academia, industry, government, youth, et cetera—on a two-day retreat and challenge them to design training programs that will give Canada’s future workforce the skills needed to invigorate a post-pandemic, stronger and more resilient economy.


What are the main forces shaping the future of work and what impacts will they have on Canada’s future economy and workforce?  

There are a number of forces impacting the need to rethink the workplace of the future, and one is the pandemic itself. Every part of society has been impacted by COVID-19 and it is going to take some time for us to work our way out of this challenge. We really have to think about how to change the workplace so that we can emerge from this challenge, but also build a better sector, province and nation that will be more resilient for future pandemics. That is one force that is really impacting what all of us do regardless of what sector we are working in.  

The second force is digital technologies and the exciting opportunities that are coming online. Even if you compare today to just a few years ago, digital technology has become much more robust. Whether you are looking at applications, platforms or artificial intelligence, machine learning and quantum computing or augmented and virtual reality—all of those areas have tremendously advanced over the last few years. Canada leads in many of those technologies. We would be remiss if we do not take advantage of our comparative strengths in those areas in rethinking the future workplace, because we should be integrating those technologies into how we work.  

“Even if you compare today to just a few years ago, digital technology has become much more robust.” 

The pandemic has actually shone a light on how we go about work. Many of us see that large parts of our space utilization can be re-envisioned, and many other things can be done remotely, and that has cost implications in terms of efficiency. It provides opportunities, and we should seize this moment to rethink how we work and integrate that into the workplace of the future.  

The third is that there are major forces that are going to be threatening civilization in general, such as climate change, and all institutions need to think about how they go about their business in the face of those grave threats.  

Those are three major forces that I can point to—a pandemic, technological change and disruption, and what is happening to the climate—that will really impact the future of work.  


Does COVID-19 have any bearing on the skills professionals and entrepreneurs will need to succeed in the future economy?  

I believe that both STEM-related, or hard skills, and soft skills are needed both in the pre-pandemic and post-pandemic economy. One of things that we are monitoring, not just in our sector but in many other sectors as well, is the impact of the pandemic on the wellness of the workforce. We are hearing across the board that the pandemic has had an extraordinarily negative impact on the wellness of the workforce. You cannot have institutions that do not have soft skills in dealing with the challenges of their employees, and you also have to have empathy because there are many challenges throughout society. Soft skills are going to be just as important as they were pre-pandemic.  

“The economy has taken an unprecedented hit, and so we will have to be innovative and leverage training in a way that will have our workforce invigorate the economy.” 

In terms of the economy of a region, province, city or nation, we are all thinking locally and nationally about how to restart. The economy has taken an unprecedented hit, and so we will have to be innovative and leverage training in a way that will have our workforce invigorate the economy. Universities and colleges will be the sparkplugs that are required to reactive the economy, and in that process, we need to seize the opportunity to think about the kinds of skills that will enable us to transition to a post-pandemic economy.  


Where are the skills acquired—by youth, entrepreneurs, professionals and for people at a later stage in their career who need to reskill?  

A lot of people have lost jobs, and some of those jobs will not reappear. The blow of the pandemic will be, in some places, crippling. We owe it to Canadians to retrain individuals that find themselves unemployable. Both universities and colleges, and the corporate sector, will have to partner together to develop those training programs—many of which do not exist today. The time for us to plan for those training programs is now.  

The conversations have started, and it really has to be a collaboration between academia, government and industry. Sometimes it will be a bilateral conversation, and sometimes it will be a trilateral conversation; sometimes it will require introspection into what a company or academia would do. But in all cases, you have to come together and be on the same page, because our resources are stretched thin. Fortunately, here in Canada and much of Western civilization, we have resources to address what has happened—but we do not have the luxury to make many mistakes. Taking the time to come together in trilateral conversations to develop a robust plan to address this unprecedented situation will be of paramount importance.  

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What is the role of academia in developing Canada’s workforce?  

Academia needs to behave a little bit differently than it has in the past. Much of what academia does should remain the same—the last thing that should happen is universities and colleges completely change and disrupt what they are doing—and there will always be a need for fundamental research and inquiry. Disciplinary strengths in universities and colleges are necessary because they provide the spark for future innovation. 

One critical example of the need for academia is the development of COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics, which comes from fundamental discoveries that are made in research universities. You cannot stop that research, because then we will be ill-prepared to deal with challenges of the future, and there are solutions that we do not have today.  

“Disciplinary strengths in universities and colleges are necessary because they provide the spark for future innovation.” 

Number two, universities and academia cannot stop supporting disciplines like the humanities, social sciences, history and philosophy—those are critical soft skills. Those disciplines are designed so that future leaders in any sector are informed by what is right from an ethical or historical perspective, which is important as well. It would be a mistake to shift to a completely STEM-focused educational foundation in academia—we cannot do that. 

Academics, and university presidents, provosts and deans, have to interact more in dialogue with government and industry, because we have a critical role in shaping the workforce for the future economy. We cannot be in our ivory towers; we have to speak with companies and with government, because shaping the workforce is a tremendous responsibility. Universities have a responsibility to the stakeholders and students that come to us wanting to be trained and prepared for their future jobs.  

“We cannot be in our ivory towers; we have to speak with companies and with government, because shaping the workforce is a tremendous responsibility.” 

Academia has to change a little bit by investing more effort into those conversations. We have to invest more effort into being part of those tables, such as the Business and Higher Education Roundtable (BEHR). Universities have to be more invested in backbone organizations like Mitacs, which do a very good job in bringing together the empowerment of academia with the needs of industry. Mitacs is a very critical organization that could be leveraged so that the workforce of the future is shaped from the right direction. We probably need to build on the backbone of Mitacs.  

Finally, Canadian industry needs to be at the table with academia and invest in innovation and research avenues at universities. There are currently not enough investments, and one of the best ways to align the strengths and needs of academia and industry is to have them be co-investors. There needs to be skin in the game from industry in what happens at universities, and universities need skin in the game in the training process. Academia has to remain focused on its core mission of knowledge creation and inquiry, but to fulfil its mandate of generating the workforce of the future or retraining individuals who have lost jobs, industry and academia have to come together—and quickly.  


Is Canada particularly well-positioned and competitive in the higher education sector? If so, why?  

There are a lot of strengths in the Canadian academic sector. One is that we have high-quality institutions. If you look at any of the global rankings, we have several universities in the top 100 and a couple in the top 50. We have universities that are widely respected, that are large research engines, and there is tremendous innovation. There is tremendous strength in Canada’s universities and colleges.  

This is a moment of opportunity for Canada—which is recognized globally—because there are international students from around the world who want to study here. The fact that we are welcoming, and that the federal government thought about how to provide international students with opportunities post-graduation, are all things that are widely known.  

“This is a moment of opportunity for Canada—which is recognized globally—because there are international students from around the world who want to study here.” 

The investments that have been made in bringing industry and universities close—for example, through Mitacs or BHER—are very impressive, and they have been accomplished only over the last several years. This is a moment where, if we plan right, we can come together and discuss how to think about and train the next generation, and to retrain those who have been displaced from jobs. This is an opportunity, and we have to seize that opportunity quickly.  


What and who would you pitch to improve how we educate and train Canada’s next generation of innovators? 

The government has a tremendous convening power, and the Prime Minister has an extraordinary opportunity to bring people together—whether that is youth who have ideas about how they want to be educated and trained, university professors and presidents, CEOs of companies or backbone organizations such as Mitacs or BHER.  

“Make Canada a place where we have seized the opportunity to think about a post-pandemic, stronger and more resilient country.” 

If I had to pitch it would be to the Prime Minister to do exactly that: bring everybody together on a 2-day retreat of thought leaders, and give them the challenge of establishing new training programs that will give Canada a competitive advantage, so that people who have lost jobs could be retrained, and the next generation can be gainfully employed. Make Canada a place where we have seized the opportunity to think about a post-pandemic, stronger and more resilient country. 

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Santa Ono - Photo credit to University of British Columbia
Santa Ono
President - University of British Columbia

Bio: Santa Ono is the President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of British Columbia. He sits on the Board of Directors of Universities Canada and is the Past Chair of Research Universities’ Council of British Columbia. Dr. Ono is also a member of the Boards of Fullbright and Mitacs. Trained as a molecular immunologist, Dr. Ono has been inducted as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences, and the National Academy of Inventors.

Organization Profile: The University of British Columbia (UBC) is a public research university with campuses in Vancouver in Kelowna, British Columbia. It is consistently ranked among the top 20 public universities in the world. Founded in 1908, UBC is British Columbia’s oldest university and the home to TRIUMF, Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics.