We need to start putting workers at the centre of the debate about the future of work and ensure they are equipped with the skills that will be needed.

Around the world, the way people work is changing as a result of factors such as disruptive technologies, demographic shifts and increased automation in a variety of sectors, to name a few. This has been a focus of several major organizations. The World Economic Forum, in its 2018 publication The Future of Jobs Report, presents a holistic view of the drivers of change that could impact the future of work. It highlights the need to develop strategies to tackle looming skills shortages. Also in 2018, the World Bank released its World Development Report 2019, which addresses the changing nature of work and shines a light on the important roles human capital and social contracts could play in the future.

While the main focus of the debate seems to be on the impact of these changes on work, it’s the workers — those in jobs with fixed salaries and benefits (standard workers) as well as those in precarious work (nonstandard workers) — who need to be prepared so they can successfully navigate a changing workforce ecosystem. Of course, these questions about the effect of these changes on work are important, but the countries experiencing them, like Canada, need to place greater emphasis on the effect on workers.

A range of factors, such as an aging population or labour market shortages, might have an impact on a workforce ecosystem, but the discourse on the future of work emphasizes just one: technological innovation. While technological advancements have long been catalysts for the evolution of work as we know it today, such technologies as machine learning, robotics and artificial intelligence are predicted to have a speedy and dramatic impact on work, across all sectors. This impact will compound the effects that comparatively more pedestrian applications, such as databases and point-of-sale software, are having on work in specific sectors, such as real estate and retail industries.

A workforce ecosystem is not a static system but one that is dynamic, fraught with uncertainty and in continuous movement. This is analogous to naturally occurring phenomena such as quantum mechanics. The Heisenberg principle of uncertainty of quantum mechanics posits that it is impossible to simultaneously measure the exact location of an orbiting particle and its exact speed; likewise, predicting the exact speed and movement of talent in a workforce ecosystem is an inexact science. It would be more beneficial for Canada to emphasize strengthening human capital development and focus on workers instead of on the changing nature of work.

How, then, could Canada focus its efforts to build a workforce of the future? Before answering this, we should first consider the context. From 2013 to date, Canada has consistently ranked in the top 15 globally in the World Economic Forum’s Human Capital Index, which measures the economic success of a country based on four pillars: education (primary, secondary and tertiary), workforce and employment, health and wellness, and the enabling environment. Of the four pillars, Canada’s ranking on the workforce and employment pillar is consistently the lowest. This is an important consideration, given that this is the pillar that deals with the experience, talent and knowledge of a country’s working-age population, and it is used as an indicator of the skills, competencies and experience of workers in a region. It is therefore key for Canada to define and implement a national plan for providing working-age individuals with the skills and capabilities needed in a dynamic workforce ecosystem.

The difference between skills that job seekers possess and those needed by employers in Ontario was raised in Rick Miner’s 2010 report People Without Jobs — Jobs Without People. The severity of the skill shortage reported varies according to company size. In its 2018 research the Business Council of Canada (with Morneau Shepell) reports on the success that large companies have in recruiting youth. But the Canadian Federation of Independent Business in its recruitment report laments the fact that 93 percent of its companies are reporting difficulties in finding youth with the right mix of skills needed in the workplace. This issue is deemed to be an employment “crisis” for small businesses in Canada.

In order to develop a strategy to build a workforce of the future, it is important to ask, What is the right mix of skills? In addition to the specialized job-related skills, Canada should focus on developing workers’ personal capabilities in areas such as openness and resilience in the face of change. This would benefit standard workers who are negatively impacted by changes in the workplace, as well as nonstandard workers, by helping them to surf the waves of change in the labour market.

While the jury may be out on the impact of innovative technologies on the future of work, it is certain that job seekers need to be able to acquire critical thinking and human interaction skills. They also need access to information about what career paths are open to them. This applies to people displaced from standard work by disruptive technologies as well as to those who have nonstandard work. It is also critical that efforts be made to improve workforce attachment for people with disabilities, young graduates, those who are not in education, employment or training (called NEETs), immigrants and Indigenous people.

Employers from organizations of all sizes are calling for these improvements to the way workers are being prepared. They are signalling that youth need to be better equipped with soft skills such as adaptability, professionalism and business acumen. The Royal Bank of Canada calls the lack of certain skills a “quiet crisis” of youth unemployment. It groups occupations into “clusters” based on the skills required for a job, to provide them with increased opportunities so they can access a range of careers. The aptness of this approach is borne out in anecdotal reports from recent hires in large companies, where individuals possessing a skills cluster of mathematics, statistics and analytical thinking had employment opportunities in a variety of jobs such as data scientist or risk analyst positions. These positions are present in all sectors, so those with the right qualifications would have job mobility across most workforce ecosystems.

It is not too late for coalitions of the willing, including government, employers, employment intermediaries and educational institutions, to work synergistically to equip workers of today with the mindset and human skills to build successful careers in an indeterminate future world of work. We need to start putting workers at the centre of the debate about the future of work and leverage the myriad of educational and training institutions to prepare workers for that uncertain future.

This article is part of the Preparing citizens for the future of work special feature.

Photo: Shutterstock, by FaheemRajput2111


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