- Automation and artificial intelligence has a huge impact on the future of work, and that direction of change is not necessarily negative as these forces can enhance jobs.
- The labour market is increasingly polarized with a large divide between those who work with new technologies, or “frontier workers” and those employed in positions that need few human abilities, or “last-mile workers.”
- Canada’s workforce and education development system, which currently focuses on students and unemployed labour, must also focus on skills development for working adults.
As technology becomes more prevalent in workplaces, Canada will need to think of solutions to help those without post-secondary education attain support for their skills development and career choices, instilling a culture of lifelong learning in all Canadian workers.
What are the main forces impacting the future of work and skills development in Canada?
Right now, everyone’s mind is on the long-term impacts of the pandemic, but if we think beyond the pandemic it is really automation and artificial intelligence (AI) that already has had and will continue to have dramatic effects on the trajectory of our working lives. Canadians are deeply worried about the challenges that increasing automation will bring as they seek economic security for themselves and their families. Among economists and other researchers who study and analyze these trends, there is actually quite a bit of debate about the nature and the magnitude of the changes that automation will bring.
Economists have done a lot of modelling over the last couple of decades on the impacts of automation, but most of this is in fact experimental. They are using new analytical approaches and non-traditional data sources to inform their projections, and this comes with a lot of uncertainty. Early efforts at predictions were actually quite simplistic and they did not really hit the mark. These estimates predicted the demise of massive numbers of jobs and they did not really unfold in the way that we thought they would. Our more recent efforts are much more sophisticated—they take into account a wider range of considerations.
“Canadians are deeply worried about the challenges that increasing automation will bring as they seek economic security for themselves and their families.”
Early estimates simply looked at an occupation’s overall suitability for machine learning. Now, we are getting better at identifying some of the things that might actually stand in the way. Particular attention is being paid to what people call bottleneck tasks—these are tasks that are difficult to automate because they require a high degree of perception, creativity, or social intelligence. While a given occupation might have a high overall suitability for machine learning, it might also have a handful of bottleneck tasks and these might even slow or actually prevent automation. More broadly, we are more aware of a wider range of cultural, social, financial, and other barriers that could actually slow or prevent automation. There are also some things that can move us in more positive directions like good job design. Good job design can actually ensure that the adoption of machine learning enhances rather than displaces jobs.
“How can we ensure that all Canadians, especially those without post-secondary education, have the skills that they need not just to survive but to thrive in our modern economy?”
We do not actually need to take a strong stand on the reliability of any of these predictions to understand how important it is for us to act now. The impacts of automation in AI are right in front of us. We already know that we are moving towards an increasingly polarized labour market. On one hand, we have dramatic growth in what people call frontier jobs—jobs that are embracing the production and use of new technologies, and they are highly paid jobs, held disproportionately by well-educated men. On the other hand, we also have growth in what people call last-mile jobs, such as an Amazon order picker. These jobs involve carrying out nearly automated tasks that require only a residual set of human abilities, and these are jobs that are typically held by individuals without post-secondary education and they pay well below average wages. In other words, our labour market is already highly polarized in terms of skills requirements and wage levels, so much so that a defining question of our time is most certainly going to be how can we ensure that all Canadians, especially those without post-secondary education, have the skills that they need not just to survive but to thrive in our modern economy?
What is Canada doing right now and how could we improve in preparing our future workforce?
Canada is doing really well on many counts, and there are many things that we are doing right. Overall, we have really high levels of post-secondary educational attainment and we also have relatively high levels of literacy and numeracy. These are things that serve as solid foundations, but when we think of our overall employment and training systems, what has served us well in the relatively stable environment of the past is not really well set up to address a more rapidly changing labour market and one that requires us to engage in lifelong learning.
“What has served us well in the relatively stable environment of the past is not really well set up to address a more rapidly changing labour market.”
Right now, our education and workforce development system rests primarily on two pillars: the first one supports the development of skills before people enter the workforce—this is our K-12 and our higher education system. The second pillar supports individuals when they are unemployed, and it is primarily funded through our employment insurance (EI) system. These two pillars leave a big gap for working Canadians during their most productive years, and what we really need to do to close this gap is a third pillar—one that directly supports working adults. This is not to say that there is not a lot of important work being done right now to support working Canadians. In fact, there are significant pockets of innovation right across the country. But my point is that these efforts are just simply not enough given the scale of the challenge that we are facing.
There is a recent report that came out suggesting that to help Canadians successfully navigate labour market changes, it will require an additional $15 billion in investments annually. It is this sheer magnitude that suggests we need to fundamentally rethink how we support Canadians to be lifelong learners. I also want to add that Canada is not alone in grappling with these challenges. Countries all around the world are actively experimenting with how to transform their employment and training systems. It is a little too early to definitely say what works, but there are some promising approaches that are emerging and there is a lot we can be doing to learn from each other internationally.
What would be your skill strategy to empower Canadian workers?
Canada needs a skill strategy that helps all Canadians and we could think about this in terms of five objectives. The first objective is to help individuals make well informed career choices. Given the rapid and often confusing changes in the labour market, individuals need expert advice and guidance. This is actually bigger than it sounds. To provide good career, advice and guidance at the scale that we are going to need to do it, we are going to need nothing short of a transformation of our publicly funded employment centres. We are going to need to transform these centres into agile, responsive, data-driven, and hands-on hubs of high quality career and training guidance. These hubs are going to need to be able to serve not just unemployed people, as they typically do now, but also working adults and employers.
“We are going to need nothing short of a transformation of our publicly funded employment centres.”
The second objective should be to strengthen our actual training systems into more coherent systems of high quality, person-centred, and demand-informed service offerings that operate at scale.
The third objective is about employers. Employers should make hiring and advancement decisions based more squarely on skills and competencies rather than credentials. We are going to realize that relying on outdated credential models is simply not a luxury that we can afford given the challenges we face ahead.
“Employers should make hiring and advancement decisions based more squarely on skills and competencies rather than credentials.”
The fourth objective is about figuring out how we pay for all of this. As more and more working-aged adults are going to be required to upskill and reskill, we are going to face an acute financing challenge. The new federal Canada Training Benefit is a step in the right direction but it is not enough. We are going to need more from employers and in the future, strong collaboration between private and public sectors is going to be more important than ever.
Lastly, the fifth objective of a Canadian skills strategy should be to foster a culture that supports and celebrates lifelong learning. Ultimately, it is going to be Canadians themselves that need to take responsibility for their careers and their own learning. Canada is going to need a massive public education campaign on this front. Canadians are really going to need to change the way they think about learning and the role that it plays throughout their lives.