By Patrick Snider

Changing how we develop skills, measure them and apply them in the workforce

Canada is heading towards a period of disruption due to technology. We need to prepare our workforce with the skills necessary to make this transition.

This year, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce has been conducting a project with partners in Canadian higher education institutes, businesses and other stakeholder groups to examine the needs of the future workforce. We have conducted a series of roundtables across the country to solicit their perspectives on this issue, bringing together experts and business leaders, as well as synthesizing together reports from other researchers on this topic.

According to many of the leading economic analysts – including the OECD, Brookfield Institute, McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), C.D. Howe, and Employment and Social Development Canada – the coming decade will see significant disruption in the way Canadians work. Estimates vary, but out of the current workforce between seven million and 11 million existing jobs are expected to see a significant share of their activities eliminated or radically transformed through automation and artificial intelligence. More contentious is the estimate of jobs that will be eliminated entirely, which range from a negligible number, to millions of jobs. What is certain is that there will be significant changes to the way that Canadians work in the coming years.

While this disruption presents challenges, the upside to automation can’t be ignored. It is estimated by MGI that the increase in productivity from automation could add up to 1.5% to GDP growth. Growth means new jobs – according to figures from our partners, over 30% of all jobs created in the 1990s during that technology boom did not exist at all previously. Looking forward, we may not know what kinds of jobs will be created in response to technologies that are only just emerging, but we can say with high confidence they will.

So what does this mean for skills in the Canadian workforce?

Canada’s existing skill training programs are designed around assumptions of low turnover, long-term careers, and a direct progression from primary and secondary education, to post-secondary job training, to employment. This worked for the old, industrial model of employment based on specific jobs with a long tenure and little change, but it is at risk of no longer functioning as the pace of technological chance increases, jobs are altered or eliminated, and more business sectors are disrupted.

Our partners identified a number of challenges to finding the skills needed to make the transition towards the new, more automated workforce of the future. The most pressing issue is the need to measure the workforce, to understand the impact of changing technology in a more detailed way.

This needs to go beyond simply listing the jobs that are available, and the majors people graduated in, and to look at the full supply of skills available and in demand. Looking forward, we see more job mobility and examples of students crossing traditional boundaries in education and employment. Employers reported looking for mixed skill sets, combining social skills and technology skills, or mathematical and business expertise. Repeatedly in our conversations, the topic of improved soft skills came up just as often as the issues with finding graduates with the specific technical expertise that was required.

Better measure supply and demand to optimize pathways to employment

We see the diversity in outcomes reflected in data around STEM employment. In US census data from 2014, nearly one quarter of workers in “STEM jobs” graduated from a non-STEM program, and only one third of STEM graduates wound up in a STEM job, with the other two-thirds working in other fields. Businesses, educators and students need better data when it comes to the different pathways their education can take them, especially the directions that are not immediately obvious.

This is why our partners ask for better measures of the specific skills that students acquire, and the skills that jobs use. Mapping the labour market in those terms allows a greater ability for all participants to find opportunities, measure the supply and demand of skills in the economy, and to plan out their future with greater precision.

This new view of skills and employment relates directly to the next priority our panellists outlined. Current educational cycles are long, measured in years, based around an industrial era education that is meant to last a lifetime in a single role. If employers are going to participate in the lifelong training of employees, then that requires more short-duration programs without long absences from the workforce. This means supporting educational institutions in developing programs, such as micro-credentials, professional certificates, and targeted technical training, which fit with the previous model of filling in more specific skill gaps.

Maintaining skills by creating more opportunities for ongoing learning

Core skills need to be maintained as well. We see in existing data, the longer workers are out of education, and the less support they receive, the more their core literacy and numeracy degrades over time. Creating more opportunities to maintain those skills is another priority.

This does not eliminate the need for existing educational programs – there is still a strong value seen in the skills that result from existing college, undergraduate and postgraduate programs. But these are going to have to increasingly coexist with other pathways to acquiring the same skills, mixing self-directed education, badges, micro-credentials and other opportunities for learning.

These changes will require a new attitude by many in the worlds of education and business. Lifelong learning is not yet a part of the culture in either our workplaces or schools, but it can be. This needs to start early – the K-12 system needs to embrace the idea that students need to view their education as an ongoing personal investment. Students require entrepreneurship education, not just in the narrow sense of starting a business but in the broader sense of continually investing in skills, looking for opportunities and seeing ways they can meet demand. These are important considerations for all future citizens, as self-employment and new modes of working increasingly become the norm.

These new modes of studying and working would require changes to financing training as well. Already governments at the federal and provincial levels have taken steps to improve access – this is crucial, since many lower income Canadians have difficulty reaching higher education. But new models need to be explored in addition to existing programs, such as supporting business investment in training. No one else in the economy has a better understanding of the skills in demand. The issue is recognizing the work that businesses do to provide training, and mitigating risks such as employee departure and poaching. By providing a flexible set of incentives, that recognize both formal training programs and the informal training that many smaller businesses engage in, skill development can be encouraged as well as better measured and understood. By lowering risks, businesses can invest with greater confidence.

Building the skill development system needed for Canada’s future workforce is not a simple matter, and will require a long-term program of changing how we develop skills, measure them, and apply them in the workforce. But it is a challenge that will define our economy for the coming decades, and whether technology becomes an asset or not.


Patrick Snider is the Director of Policy for Skills and Immigration at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. He completed the Bachelor of the Humanities program at Carleton University in Ottawa, and went on to a Master’s in Political Science at that same institution, with a focus on political theory. His work has included a range of policy studies on topics as diverse as healthcare, cooperative businesses, education and immigration. In those positions, he used his background to identify issues and offer solutions to political questions.