DerekNewton UofT
Derek Newton
Assistant Vice-President, Innovation, Partnerships and Entrepreneurship - University of Toronto

Soft Skills for Canada’s Future Workforce

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Takeaways

  1. The knowledge economy is going to accelerate, creating the need for more highly skilled jobs and global institutes of higher education.
  2. The ability to think critically, work on teams and present your ideas in a compelling way are the skills needed for the future economy.
  3. Academia-industry partnerships allow students to apply their passions, ideas and research while preparing them for the competitive work environment that awaits.

Action

The federal and provincial government, as well as city and civic leaders, must continue to invest in research institutions from coast-to-coast-to-coast and engage these institutions in the economic recovery. As we move beyond COVID-19, Canada will be viewed as a stable and welcoming country, and we must continue to attract the world’s greatest talents.


What are the main forces that are shaping education and skills development for Canada’s workforce?  

Obviously, right now, we are in the middle of a global pandemic that we have never experienced before, and so this is a very concerning time and a difficult period for Canadians and individuals around the world. Of course, that is going to shape the year ahead, so that is top of everybody’s mind.  

At the same time, we are seeing that university students are wanting to come to a global institution to engage in research, and our researchers are looking to tackle some of the current pressing challenges that are ahead of us. We have seen this accelerate, so that has been very exciting. 

When I think back over the challenging months we’ve come through, for the most part we have seen that this crisis is bringing out the best in our students and researchers

We have also seen how adaptable our education system and research programs are. Really, it is our students who are often at the forefront of that; embracing new technologies, new modes of learning and new ways of engaging with instructors and each other. We have seen a lot of flexibility and adaptability.  

When I think back over the challenging months we’ve come through, for the most part we have seen that this crisis is bringing out the best in our students and researchers. The pandemic is also bringing out the best in a lot of institutions and highlighting the role that universities play in answering challenging and urgent questions. At the same time, it has made evident how they are preparing the next workforce—one which will be facing challenging times ahead. I believe the value of getting a higher education at a global institution has never been more important.  


What are the impacts on students, the workforce and the future economy from those macro trends?  

Over the last decade, we have certainly seen an enormous shift towards the knowledge economy and we have seen urbanization accelerate. Companies have been clustering to areas of innovation, and we have seen a lot of growth in Toronto and in Canada with high-tech jobs. I do not think that that is going to change; those trends are going to continue into the future. 

The partnerships that the university has engaged in with industry and community partners are enabling students to tackle tough research questions and gain access to data, hardware, and software equipment that they otherwise would not have access to. Academic-industry partnerships are forming individuals who have amazing skills and training, which can be applied in a multitude of domains.  

The knowledge economy is going to continue to accelerate. Some of the ways in which we are delivering our research and education are changing because of COVID-19, but the underlying need for higher education, for a highly skilled workforce and for Canada to compete globally is going to continue. Companies are going to go to jurisdictions that have strong talent, like that which we have in Canada. These are our great strengths that are going to serve the country well now and into the future.  


What are the specific skills that are needed to innovate, create businesses and scale them internationally?  

One of the things that we have seen here at the university, and what we have done at the University of Toronto, is grow the number of entrepreneurship programs that our students can take part in.  

We have actually seen a huge increase in students wanting to learn more about entrepreneurship in the classroom and we have over 200 courses that teach some amount of small business training, entrepreneurship, and critical thinking along innovation lines in the classroom. We have now created over 10 entrepreneurship initiatives that operate on our campus. The University of Toronto operates on three campuses, and so regardless of what physical campus a student is studying in they can take part in an entrepreneurship program. 

Many of our programs are specific to a field or a sector, whether it is medicine, computer science or engineering, and we have programs that go from pre-company and pre-idea, through to students meeting in places like our Creative Destruction Lab, which is helping new companies rapidly accelerate into the global marketplace. 

In fact, over the last 10 years, University of Toronto entrepreneurs have created over 500 companies and have gone out to raise over $1.5 billion in external investment as they bring their ideas into the marketplace. 

People often think about entrepreneurship in terms of starting a successful company—and of course, that is true—but we also see it as a life skill. Entrepreneurship is a way of thinking and a skill that we would like many of our graduates to have regardless of whether they want to own a business in the future: the ability to think critically, work on teams, present your ideas in a compelling way, and to pivot.

Over the last 10 years, University of Toronto entrepreneurs have created over 500 companies and have gone out to raise over $1.5 billion in external investment as they bring their ideas into the marketplace. 

Many employers are looking for individuals who are entrepreneurial or can be intrapreneurs and can think outside the box. We really view entrepreneurship as a way to provide experiential learning to our students and to equip them for the job market. For many of them entrepreneurship is a way for them to create their own great job and a few more for their classmates on the way out of university. 

In terms of skills, certainly as we are moving online, I think about how communication is changing—how we communicate verbally and through other ways—and I think people are being more intentional about that. But what has not changed is the need for soft skills, and programs like are entrepreneurship programs, which are helping students articulate their ideas through pitch competitions online, allow them to show leadership and bring others into their wonderful ideas, contribute to make those ideas better, and ultimately have a greater impact. I think we are seeing a lot of really exciting new ways in which people are continuing to engage despite the current environment. 

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What must be done now and by who to make Canada a leader in the development of future professionals and entrepreneurs? 

One of the things that we are doing now is creating an intellectual property education course. The University of Toronto has great programs to help our researchers commercialize their research and protect it. But what we are realizing now in today’s knowledge economy is that our students need to understand the value of intellectual property and its many forms, from patents to copyright, to design, to trade secrets. We need to start to get students thinking about that at an earlier stage, so we are developing online courses and modules that are going to be applicable to any student in any discipline, from the undergraduate level.  

What we are realizing now in today’s knowledge economy is that our students need to understand the value of intellectual property and its many forms, from patents to copyright, to design, to trade secrets. 

The university is also going to be building deeper content for those who are actively engaged in innovation and entrepreneurship, equipping them for the competitive world that awaits them and helping them understand the value of their ideas—how to protect, utilize and grow them. When we think about the next generation of innovators, entrepreneurs and inventors, that will be another life skill that we want our students to have exposure to, and it will equip them well as they go forward.  


How can we improve upon existing collaborations to better prepare our future workforce?  

We certainly need to prepare students for a collaborative environment and workforce, and we see more of that in this global world. The University of Toronto has a number of initiatives. We work with Mitacs, which is a federal program here in Canada that supports student mobility and helps provide them the opportunity to leave university and work on-site for a company or partner. Programs that have been traditionally very focused on industry are actually now opening up, and we are seeing more community engagement and activity in places like hospitals. The types of partnerships and collaborations that we are seeing our students enter into are expanding, which is wonderful to see.  

In terms of collaborations, the university has been working with partners that we have helped form, like the Vector Institute. That is a great collaborative initiative that is training the next generation of artificial intelligence scientists—which is part of its core mission—and is a collaborative model that came out of the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy

Many of our students want to work on applied programs. They want to see their work, passion and research be put into practice, often through entrepreneurship.

The University of Toronto, over the last 10 years, has worked with over 600 industry partners, and about half of those are in Canada and the other half are international partners. These collaborations provide really great experiences for students; some involve travel. What this all comes down to is our ability to attract some of the greatest students from around the world to the University of Toronto. 

Many of our students want to work on applied programs. They want to see their work, passion and research be put into practice, often through entrepreneurship.  We are also now seeing a lot of programs surrounding social innovation—we actually just launched a competition over the course of the summer to support a number of students in social innovation. There are many different models of partnerships coming out of the university with community partners, industry partners and programs like Mitacs, which are helping us expand.  


What advantages does Canada have when facing the future of work compared to other nations?  

Canada has a lot of advantages when it comes to the future of work. We continue to be viewed as a stable and welcoming jurisdiction to people from around the world. We have enormous advantages in terms of the amazing research institutions across the country in areas like cleantech, quantum computing, and artificial intelligence. These are the kinds of knowledge areas that we are going to continue to need to drive our economy and entrepreneurship, and continue to create new jobs in the country. Canada is very well-poised for the future.  


What would your pitch to strengthen innovation and best develop Canada’s future workforce?  

We have seen in this global pandemic the very strong role of universities in helping us to adapt and answer difficult questions. The University of Toronto has played an outsized role when it comes to public health policy, solutions for personal protective equipment and medical technology, and we are going to need that to continue going forward. Right now, we are shifting our focus to economic recovery—how do we get technologies and entrepreneurs into the workforce to build economic activity? 

Right now, we are shifting our focus to economic recovery—how do we get technologies and entrepreneurs into the workforce to build economic activity? 

My pitch would be to continue to invest in some of the great research institutions that our country has, from coast-to-coast-to-coast, and to continue to invest in research and innovation programs.

As we begin to move beyond COVID-19, Canada will be a global country that welcomes individuals into our country and provides opportunities for them, and we have to support our global institutions to attract the greatest talents in the world and keep them here. This pitch is to both levels of government, who have been key supporters of higher education across the country, and to the city and civic leaders who want to engage local universities for the economic recovery and attract and retain amazing talent locally.  

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DerekNewton UofT
Derek Newton
Assistant Vice-President, Innovation, Partnerships and Entrepreneurship - University of Toronto

Bio: Derek Newton is the Assistant Vice-President, Innovation, Partnerships and Entrepreneurship at the University of Toronto, which works to build partnerships between industry and the university’s research community. He previously served as the Director (Acting) of the Office of Research Development and Services at Western University. Derek holds a PhD in biochemistry from the University of Toronto.

Organization Profile: The University of Toronto is a public research university and the largest university in Ontario. Founded in 1827 as King’s College, the university has more than 60,000 students across undergraduate and postgraduate programs. The University of Toronto receives the most scientific research funding of any Canadian university.