[Online Exclusive] The Future of the Canadian Workforce in the Digital Society
By Dragana Martinovic and Viktor Freiman
Attracting talent and engaging underrepresented groups
Today’s labour market relies heavily on technology and requires skills and competencies that may vary from simply using an online form to apply for work, to writing a sophisticated computer program. With this broad spectrum of workplace demands in mind, we looked into job skills that involve digital technologies needed for Canadians entering the workforce, and the ways to attract talent and engage underrepresented groups (Martinovic & Freiman, 2013).
European forecasters (CEDEFOP, 2012) predict decline in manual and routine jobs—easily replaced by technology or organizational change—and increase in highly skilled jobs, over-qualification of people who will try to stay competitive in threatened economies, and further polarization of the workforce towards a top-heavy and bottom-heavy job spectrum. While Canada was so far successful in attracting immigrants with specific skills, the anticipated worldwide shortages of the highly skilled workers, as well as competition between the developed nations for such skills, will require creative measures to attract immigrant workers. Some measures may involve increasing numbers of foreign students in the targeted post-secondary enrollments, and opening opportunities for them to work and remain in Canada after completion of the program (Cheung, Guillemette, & Mobasher-Fard, 2012).
Adaptability and ongoing learning are assets in the future of work
According to researchers, future workers will need to be adaptable lifelong learners, as even the most elementary occupations will require a combination of transferable and specific skills (e.g., independent problem solving, organization, communication and planning). Together with other countries, government of Canada (2010) recognizes that digital literacy—the ability to use digital technology and the Internet, to gather, manage, and evaluate information, to create documents in multiple media forms, and to communicate at distance—is a prerequisite for creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship. This needs to be leveraged by the so-called soft—or 21st century—transdisciplinary skills (Freiman et al., 2017).
Many working-age Canadians lack adequate skills in problem solving in technology-rich environments (Statistics Canada, 2013). Among them, the proportion is higher in underrepresented groups in the Canadian workforce, such as aboriginal population, immigrants, linguistic minorities, and 16-24 year olds. As this gap risks being widened, Digital Canada 150 strategy encouraged more post-secondary enrolment in technology-related programs by underrepresented groups, such as women and Aboriginal Canadians (Government of Canada, 2014). Women, indigenous youth, and youth living in poverty are especially unexploited labour resources in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) sector (Brookfield, 2017).
Indeed, nowadays, workplace tasks are more complex and reliant on reasoning, rather than on physical labour. With many routine jobs being done by or with computers, workers are increasingly required to deal with non-routine tasks and engage in expert thinking as they handle vast amounts of information and engage in complex communication, often at distance and under unpredictable conditions. To enhance the new employees’ chances to successfully integrate into the workplace, companies may utilize a ‘year in industry’ internship program (Hewitt, 2016).
(Re)Training opportunities needed for the workforce
Having more advanced and automated systems in a workplace does not mean that the human operator is absolved of the need for skilled decision-making and troubleshooting; even when technology is introduced to reduce the tedium of the job task, the worker still needs to monitor the automated process while critically assessing its outcomes. This also means that more resources (i.e., time, money) need to be invested in the operator’s training in three areas: (a) crisis-resolution skills (e.g., when the machine fails or performs contrary to expectations), (b) engagement with the repetitive and boring tasks, and (c) development of the right attitude—viewing the workplace as a system where humans and technologies work as a team (Hoffman & Militello, 2009).
At the same time, new issues arise from these trends—the more intelligent and helpful technology becomes, the more difficulty its users have in understanding what and why it does what it does—people can become ‘de-skilled.’ Counter measures may involve self-directed “just-in-time” learning, organized through mini online learning modules and videos. Peer-to-peer training and coaching can also be provided on demand through different online options. These features allow organizations to accelerate speed of achieving proficiency in complex job skills (Attri & Wu, 2016).
Apart from those who lack work, school, or informal opportunities to develop skills, the individuals and organizations most at risk are those who (a) cannot adapt, (b) are not connected and not flexible, (c) do not see opportunities in change, and (d) do not have the means (e.g., funds, connections) to enter the digital marketplace. Counter-measures should focus on (a) youth-at-risk—to minimize production of low-skilled individuals; (b) government incentives—to re-educate the adult population; and (c) redesign of jobs—to increase demands for skilled workers.
Initiatives that open more training opportunities in basic digital skills for those who need help exist in Canada. In Atlantic Canada, the CBDC Restigouche has coordinated the Digital Essential Skills in Rural Small Businesses project by creating a bilingual training model organized around the use of software and applications such as email, while the Internet is used specifically in targeted job-related tasks. In New Brunswick, along with other jurisdictions, the Ministry of Post-Secondary Education offers a training in digital literacy for adult learners. Targeting specifically underrepresented groups, a joint federal-provincial initiative Canada-B.C. Job Grant is now underway.
With the Digital Literacy strategy yet to be developed for Canada, the future of workforce preparation requirements call for a country-wide educational transformation that includes the creation of post-secondary institution/private sector/community alliances to ensure that Canadians embrace digital literacy both as a goal and as a vehicle for success.
Dragana Martinovic is a Professor at University of Windsor, where she leads the Human Development Technologies Research Group. In her research, she explores ways in which technology can improve teaching and learning outcomes, and the digital literacy skills needed for a successful learner and worker of the 21st century.
Viktor Freiman is a Professor at the Université de Moncton. He is Director of the CompéTI.CA Partnership Development Network on digital competences lifelong continuum development. He investigates how to foster the development of digital literacy through collaboration between schools/postsecondary institutions/workforce and what role soft-skills could play in this process.
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Cheung, C., Guillemette, Y., & Mobasher-Fard, S. (2012). Tertiary education: Developing skills for innovation and long-term growth in Canada.
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Martinovic, D., & Freiman, V. (2013). Digital skills development for future needs of the Canadian labour market (pp. 1-71). Final report to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
Statistics Canada. (2013). https://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/89-555-x/89-555-x2013001-eng.htm