How much will jobs change due to technological advancements in machine learning and artificial intelligence? Recent national and international reports suggest that specific job tasks will be automated, changing the nature of many occupations. That means workers may increasingly need skills that are complementary to the new technology.

Complementary skills are flexible skills such as communication, creativity, complex problem solving, analytical thinking and social perceptiveness. Workers who already possess these skills may be well-positioned to meet the evolving needs of employers, so they will find it easier to get higher-paying and better-quality jobs. Workers whose current jobs involve automatable tasks and require only low levels of complementary skills may not be adequately prepared for the coming changes.

Our research looks at particular groups of workers, women, workers with disabilities and immigrants, whose less favourable labour market outcomes are well-documented. However, less is known about how they differ from other workers in the skills that they need to do their jobs. If workers from vulnerable groups hold jobs requiring lower levels of complementary skills, their job prospects may further worsen as skill level requirements change.

Out of 35 skills identified by O*NET as being used in the workplace, we focused on 10:  reading comprehension, writing, mathematics, science, complex problem solving, social perceptiveness, troubleshooting, technology design, programming and management of financial resources. O*NET reports scores for the level of each skill needed in each occupation. We combined these scores with data about the types of jobs that certain groups of Canadians held in 2011, following a methodology similar to one used in previous studies. We could then compare the level of skill in, for example, programming that was required of women in their jobs with the level of programming skill required of men in their jobs. Figure 1 shows that, on average, women’s jobs required them to use programming skills that are 11 percent less complex than the skills required of men.

Generally, women worked in jobs with higher skill level requirements in reading comprehension, writing and social perceptiveness. However, women held jobs that required much lower levels of skill in troubleshooting, science, technology design and management of financial resources. To a lesser extent, women also had jobs with lower skill level requirements than the jobs of their male peers in complex problem solving, programming and mathematics.

Workers with disabilities are defined as individuals who experience difficulties with daily activities due to physical, mental or other health conditions. For these workers, as compared with non-disabled workers, lower levels of most skills were required in their occupations (figure 2). These occupational skill gaps for workers with disabilities were largest in programming, science, technology design and management of financial resources. One exception was in troubleshooting, where workers with disabilities and non-disabled workers had similar occupational skill levels.

On average, immigrant workers in Canada have higher educational attainment than Canadian-born workers. This educational advantage is reflected in their occupational skill gaps — but in this case, the differences are mostly on the positive side of the ledger rather than on the negative side. Immigrants held jobs with higher skill level requirements across most skill areas than did non-immigrants (figure 3). In particular, immigrants’ jobs required higher skill levels in programming, technology design, science and management of financial resources. However, immigrant and Canadian-born workers worked in jobs with similar skill levels in social perceptiveness and troubleshooting.

Overall, the evidence suggests that women and workers with disabilities may not be as well prepared for the skill demands of future jobs as their counterparts. However, in certain areas, such as social perceptiveness, women’s jobs required higher levels of skill than men’s jobs. Similarly, immigrant workers had jobs with higher skill levels than Canadian-born workers across most skill areas, particularly in science and technology skills. These results indicate that women and immigrants may be better prepared than their counterparts to meet demands for particular complementary skills.

If the assumption that future jobs will increasingly require skills that are complementary to automation is correct, workers who belong to vulnerable groups may be at a disadvantage. Reducing the occupational skill gaps that women and workers with disabilities experience could provide these workers with a smoother transition to future jobs and impede further inequality. To better prepare vulnerable workers for future skill demands, educational planners and employers can use these results to identify the skill areas in which further training investments are needed and to inform strategies aimed at developing the abilities of vulnerable workers in complementary skill areas. The results can also be useful to workers themselves by raising their awareness of the skill areas which may be in demand in the future.  Lastly, a better understanding of whether vulnerable groups are improving or falling further behind would be facilitated by research that updates these results and examines changes in their occupational skill gaps over time.

This article is part of the Preparing Citizens for the Future of Work special feature.

Photo: Shutterstock, by Firma V

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Kristyn Frank
Kristyn Frank is a researcher at Statistics Canada. Her research focuses on skills, education, and immigrant integration. She holds a PhD in sociology from the University of Waterloo.
Marc Frenette
Marc Frenette is a researcher at Statistics Canada, specializing in education and skills-related research. He holds a PhD in economics from the University of Nottingham (UK).

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