Governments in Canada and around the globe are struggling to incorporate modern technology into their employment and training systems. As fears of job losses increase due to automation and businesses strive to close widening skills gaps, pressure is building on policy-makers to find ways to adapt.

The current impulse in Canada is for governments to partner with private sector companies like LinkedIn or to fund incubators and hope that employment and training solutions will develop from the ground up. These responses are inadequate for the task, fail to take advantage of the opportunities offered by new technology and, in some cases, may put personal data at risk.

We must think bigger.

Shutterstock/By Andrey Armyagov

We should take inspiration from projects of the past, like the International Space Station, where countries facing a common challenge worked together to build a transformational solution. An approach that uses the resources of governments, but is built and managed like a modern technology company, could create an enabling infrastructure that changes the game for job seekers, employment advisers and businesses.

So what might such a platform look like? And how can we make it happen?

To imagine how it might work, let’s picture a young woman who’s juggling shifts for Tim Hortons and driving for Lyft. At her local employment office, her adviser suggests she use an assessment tool, which identifies that she has the core skills to succeed in software engineering. The assessment is linked to the platform, which suggests a set of online courses that fit her schedule, then tracks her progress and provides appropriate credentials. Because her data are anonymously aggregated, the government is informed that a number of people like her live in the region, which helps it to convince Shopify to locate its new data centre there and train the local workforce. Underemployed people get a career boost while Shopify finds the skills it needs.

We have all the technology we need to enable an outcome like this today, and useful tools already exist. For the example above, Pairin and Jobtimize assess core skills, Credly issues credentials for nontraditional education, and platforms like Udemy and Lynda provide online training.  More will be incubated in private and government-sponsored labs like the forthcoming federal Future Skills Centre. But it’s difficult for workers to navigate all these options, and for policy-makers to learn from how they’re being used. What’s missing is a platform enabling these tools to work together.

Admittedly, technology alone won’t solve all the challenges facing the workforce in Canada and worldwide. But a robust, comprehensive platform with open standards would be an extraordinary enabler for public policy innovation and the individual efforts of workers, companies and workforce development experts.

Such an infrastructure could help us adapt quickly to changing labour markets — something we’ve never been good at. Whether we experience decades of factory closures or sudden spikes in demand for data scientists, we seem to be constantly chasing our tails. The objective should be to build resilience and adaptability into the system, automatically updating recommendations based on live data, the way search results change over time on Google.

National or provincial governments should not build this platform themselves, because they’re bad at delivering on large-scale technology projects. Among many potential pitfalls, procurement regulations often lead to poorly motivated contractors, and projects are vulnerable to partisan political attacks. Look at the federal government’s Phoenix payroll system to see what can go wrong.

Nor should a global tech company build it. As opposed to closed, profit-making platforms like LinkedIn or Google, a successful platform would focus on enabling other private sector companies and public sector programs. Even if a company did agree to create an open-source platform, a government would be unwise to partner at a national level with a single tech company. The company’s motivations and priorities may change dramatically over time, and ownership and protection of data would be a constant challenge.

Countries around the world, which face similar challenges in reforming their employment and training systems, should create a new independent organization.

Instead, countries around the world, which face similar challenges in reforming their employment and training systems, should create a new independent organization. Separate from government bureaucracy and private platforms, it would be run like a nimble tech company and led by proven tech entrepreneurs who are able to make quick decisions. The platform would be created with open standards to allow the best public and private sector tools to plug into it, and to make it fully adaptable to different national and local contexts. Governments would put up the investment and, most important, their data, which would need to be managed according to the highest standards of data protection.

The way forward is illustrated by Bob Emploi, a nonprofit online coaching platform for unemployed workers in France that boasts around 150,000 members. Of those on the platform who have re-entered employment, 42 percent said Bob’s coaching contributed to their success. Its co-founder, Paul Duan, gave up his lucrative role as a data scientist in Silicon Valley to use his skills in the public interest. His nonprofit, open-source approach and credible background convinced the French government to provide exclusive access to government employment data, which powers Bob’s AI engine. True to its start-up origins, Bob is moving quickly to scale up.

Entrepreneurial talent, funding and access to government data can produce powerful tools designed in the public interest. By applying these principles to an international, system-level approach, we could build an infrastructure to drive change at scale. An independent organization tasked with building the “space station for work” would attract world-class tech leaders, drawn in by the prospect of working to solve one of the world’s great problems. From aiding refugees to helping people access government benefits, tech professionals are looking for ways to harness their skills for good. The project’s scope would also attract the most exciting private sector collaborators.

This new organization would be backed by a partnership of countries that could provide the funding and critical mass of data required to fuel a ground-breaking AI engine. At an international scale, the platform’s capabilities would be far more powerful and could avoid the partisan politics and burdensome bureaucracy that can stop domestic projects in their tracks. To create a substantial budget, each country would have to contribute only a modest sum — modest especially by comparison with governments’ current spending on employment and training.

This would be the perfect test case for a new type of international cooperation. Governments are desperate for ways to collaborate on technology. For example, Canada recently joined a network of leading digital countries, the Digital 9, affirming its commitment to harness digital technology in policy-making.

With its advances in AI, commitment to innovation and strong position on the diplomatic stage, Canada is perfectly suited to be this project’s champion.

For public policy-makers, the window to lead and shape the employment and training platform of the future is closing quickly. It’s time to build the International Space Station for Work.

This article is adapted from Canada Next: 12 Ways to Get Ahead of Disruption, a Public Policy Forum series of 12 reports on disruptive challenges and opportunities facing Canada.

This article is part of the Nimble Policy-Making for a Canada in Flux special feature.

Photo: Shutterstock/By alphaspirit

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Jon Shell
Jon Shell is managing director of Social Capital Partners. He and his team are working on expanding employee ownership in the economy by financing company conversions to employee ownership in the U.S. and working toward policy change that would allow similar transitions to take place in Canada.
Jack Graham
Jack Graham is policy editor at Social Capital Partners (SCP), an independently funded non-profit that works to improve Canada’s employment system and tackle wealth inequality.

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