The Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC) predicts Canada will require an additional 250,000 jobs in the digital economy to reach a total of 2.3 million digital workers by 2025.

The international race to acquire digital talent is highly competitive. Canada has been making some headway in attracting digital workers from across the globe, particularly since the launch of its tech talent strategy this summer.

For example, the federal government is consulting with provinces and territories to find ways to promote Canada to “digital nomads” and it’s working on allowing startups to apply for work permits of up to three years for staff. In July, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada launched a one-time H1-B specialty-occupation, open work permit initiative, which reached its goal of 10,000 applications within 24 hours.

However, while these initiatives are welcome and will help attract new digital workers, they will result in the acquisition of only a small fraction of the total talent needed. Our governments will continue to have trouble competing with the private sector for skilled digital workers.

Therefore, the federal government in particular must act with more urgency and agility, as well as take a whole-of-government approach to the way it attracts, trains and retains digital talent.

Citizens are increasingly technology savvy and expect a seamless digital experience where government services align with how they engage with product and service providers in the private sector.

Canada’s public service agencies made great strides during the pandemic to use digital technologies to improve the delivery of public services, but Canada still lags behind global leaders. The United Nations 2022 e-government survey found that Canada slipped from 28th place in 2020 to 32nd in 2022.

Internal government systems remain largely siloed between departments, despite ambitions for enterprise digital transformation in almost all jurisdictions. Cloud adoption – an innovation driver – lags at less than 10 per cent of government operations.

Given the pace of technological advancement, consumer digital expectations and industry innovation, successive Privy Council clerks and federal department chief information officers have continued to highlight the need for more and better digital capacity in government.

Ottawa already faces an estimated 30-per-cent shortage for its IT positions and must accept the reality of having limited ability to attract new talent to government jobs. Because of this, it must really focus on investing in its existing digital talent, skills and literacy to sustain its workforce into the future.

Over the past few months, there has been significant public debate about the appropriate way for the federal government to address its need for digital skills, to modernize its operations and citizen services, and to keep up with these complex demands.

Highlighting the priority, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Terry Beech as minister of Citizen Services – a new government department – tasking him with expediting the digital transformation of federal services for citizens.

But Ottawa simply can’t go it alone. Even the most advanced technology companies are struggling to adapt to changes such as AI, the cloud or the metaverse, and to protect themselves from security threats. They too rely on third-party expertise to anticipate, understand and adopt the latest technological innovations, and to bring new ideas to their organizations.

However, the gulf between government and industry investment in technology is significant. For example, research by Accenture found 49 per cent of global public sector respondents said their organization planned to make a large investment in data solutions over the next three years, compared to 71 per cent across all industries.

The inner workings of government
Keep track of who’s doing what to get federal policy made. In The Functionary.
The Functionary
Our newsletter about the public service. Nominated for a Digital Publishing Award.

Governments that put off similar investments will only see the technology and skills gap widen between their institutions and the private sector.

The federal government’s 2022 digital ambition policy identifies skills training and purposeful collaboration with outside technical expertise as essential to developing the best outcomes and use of public funds. Catherine Luelo, the federal government’s chief information officer, has made finding digital talent one of her top three priorities.

In today’s world, an effective and modern government is fundamental to compete, to attract global investment, and to conceive and deliver smart public policies. Integrating skills with consistency across the public service’s digital community is essential to meet the federal government’s needs for a future-proof talent strategy.

With governments and businesses competing for a limited number of digital workers, these jobs will need to be filled through a combination of solutions. There is no easy answer – but increasing investments in digital skills will have a big impact.

The value of technology skills training

Smart and consistent investment to accelerate talent transformation is shown to pay big dividends. Digitally fluent organizations have a culture with people who can build on technological foundations and create new ways of working. These organizations are 2.7 times more likely to have experienced high revenue growth (greater than 20 per cent) over the past three years, Accenture found.

Yet a crucial gap exists. In 2021, 78 per cent of IT decision-makers reported skills gaps within their organization, up from 36 per cent in 2015. They cite three top reasons for this: technology change exceeds skills development programs; the difficulty attracting talent; and under-investing in training to develop the skills needed to help fill these positions internally.

Hiring talent is an expensive and lengthy process. The cost can be up to six times more than to build the required skills from within. Training is also essential to the retention of talent. Fifty-five per cent of highly skilled digital workers say they are willing to change organizations if they feel their digital skills are stagnating at their current employer.

Sixty-seven per cent of IT decision-makers also believe that skills gaps cost their employees between three to nine hours of lost productivity per week. Poor IT skills will trickle down to non-tech positions and impact their ability to get work done.

Speaking tech to power

Ottawa needs thousands of tech workers to serve Canadians properly

Our public servants want to work for organizations that provide them with the tools and skills they need to succeed, but they receive less support than industry peers: our research found 59 per cent of public sector respondents are planning to increase their investment in skills development to a large extent in the next three years, compared to 71 per cent across all industries.

A talent-focused strategy means a stronger government. Technology enables better citizen services, a more innovative culture, stronger security, and leaves a legacy of innovation and problem-solving that can be replicated across the public service.

It is a big challenge with no easy solutions. Governments and external industry partners must come together if we are to support a talent strategy for the public service that is aligned with Canadian ambitions and citizens’ expectations.

Do you have something to say about the article you just read? Be part of the Policy Options discussion, and send in your own submission, or a letter to the editor. 
Mark Lambert 
Mark Lambert is senior managing director and Canada federal public service lead at Accenture.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License

Related IRPP Research

Building a Package of Compromise Solutions for EI Reform

By Ricardo Chejfec and Rachel Samson December 7, 2022

Financing Employment Insurance Reform: Finding the Right Balance

By IRPP Working Group December 7, 2022

Related Center of Excellence Research

The Federal Spending Power in the Trudeau Era: Back to the Future?

By Peter Graefe and Nicole Fiorillo June 7, 2023

Federal transfers to provinces: public preferences

By Charles Breton and Andrew Parkin May 10, 2022