For Canada to have effective training and education policies, it needs to properly classify and define skills and link them to occupational data.

Every day, Canadians and businesses make important choices about the futures of their careers, organizations and lives. Accurate, timely and relevant information is critical in making the best possible decisions.

But recent developments, including increasingly rapid technological change, are creating gaps in the information available, especially around the skills needed in the new world of work. The skills requirements of many jobs are changing, and employers report they are having difficulty finding workers with the right skills to fill key vacancies. Simultaneously, workers are struggling to understand the changing skills they need to maximize their prospects and meet the changing requirements of the labour market.

To thrive in this increasingly dynamic world of work, Canadians need better ways to identify and articulate the skills they will need. For this to happen, we need to build a stronger, more insightful informational architecture around skills. As we highlight in our new report, building this new architecture faces a host of challenges, including multiple and sometimes contradictory skills classifications and frameworks.

We need to build meaningful connections between job classifications and occupational data, and find the best ways to access, assess and analyze jobs and skills data – all while ensuring credibility, rigour and integrity. However, our ability to understand jobs through the lens of skills will play a fundamental role in ensuring that Canadians succeed in the world of work, that employers find the talent they need to grow and prosper, and that our education and training systems are responding appropriately.

The challenges in defining and measuring skills

Canada lacks a common framework for understanding, measuring and evaluating skills. Different and contradictory definitions, classifications and measurements co-exist. Faced with multiple classification systems – many of which fail to clearly distinguish between knowledge, competencies and skills – Canadians are often left to decipher concepts such as “soft skills” on their own and to try to figure out for themselves which skills to cultivate. Meanwhile, educators and employers struggle to determine the types of training they should focus on offering to Canadians.

To try to bring clarity to the issue, Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) has developed a framework for defining and talking about skills, as well as knowledge areas, and competencies in a way that is consistent and aligned with international standards. Namely, skills are “developed capacities that an individual must have in order to be effective in a job, role, function, task or duty.” This definition highlights the distinction between skills and related qualities such as knowledge, personal abilities and attributes, and competencies.

Defining skills is only the first step, however. Reliably measuring them presents its own challenges.

The old way of measuring skills is indirect, using proxies such as educational attainment and fields of study. These proxies have the advantage of being well-defined across statistical reporting agencies and easily measured. They are used, for example, in Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey and Census of Population. But these ways of describing skills no longer provide sufficiently useful and accurate information about the actual elements required for the jobs of today and tomorrow – a precondition for investing in specific skills initiatives that will help Canadians meet the changing demands of the Canadian labour market.

If using proxies is so problematic, why not try direct measurement? While there are a number of methods available for capturing skills in demand, they all have significant trade-offs in terms of quality, accuracy and practicality. For example, employer surveys directly ask employers to identify skills shortages but can be prone to self-promotion bias, and the responses often lack the specificity required to guide and inform action.

Given these limitations, some have turned to newer techniques, such as mining self-reported skills data from online job postings (demand side of skills), and from resumé data on digital platforms such as LinkedIn and Indeed (supply side of skills). Firms such as Vicinity Jobs or Burning Glass Technologies scrape websites and databases to generate datasets, which in turn help to identify, organize and categorize skills requirements and the stock of skills on offer. But skills and job categorization vary across organizations, making comparison across data sources challenging. Online datasets are not as robust as traditional statistical databases, and represent samples that might not accurately represent populations. Moreover, certain industries, such as IT and health, are more likely to post jobs online, thereby creating the possibility that these data paint a distorted picture of the larger labour market.

Nonetheless, online data can provide valuable insights into the skill requirements of jobs that are timely, detailed and local.

The Way Forward

ESDC recently introduced a new Skills and Competency Taxonomy that distinguishes 47 skills organized into five groups: foundational, analytical, technical, resource management and interpersonal. This builds on the department’s longstanding Essential Skills Framework, which sets out the basic competencies people need across a range of occupations –  including oral and written communication, numeracy, digital skills, document use, thinking, working with others and continuous learning.

This classification aims to provide a reference language for the discussion of skills in Canada. But the introduction of this classification is just the first step. Our ability to understand how jobs are shifting, enable a better dialogue about skills, and improve policy and program design, requires that we go further and associate job characteristics, knowledge areas, skills and competencies with jobs in an open and transparent way.

How we do that remains a bit of a question mark, but it will undoubtedly entail leveraging new technologies that are used in combination with traditional ways of generating labour market information.

Canada’s continued labour market success will be driven by its ability to progressively develop its skills-related policies and programs. Information about the skills and training needs of workers, employers, and education and training providers is key to navigating the future of work. Good labour market information lies at the heart of solving the skills puzzle.

This article is part of Skills Next, a series of eight reports released in January 2020 by the Future Skills Centre, Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute and the Public Policy Forum.  Skills Next seeks to identify the most important issues impacting the skills ecosystem in Canada, and build a strong foundation intended to help support further research and strengthen policy-making.

Photo: Shutterstock/By Viktoria Kurpas


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