(This article has been translated into French.)

Artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, automation, blockchains, 3D printing, augmented reality and virtual reality: the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of all these technologies. Competition for employees with “deep” technology development skills is global, and Canadian employers are struggling to meet salary expectations. This is especially true for computer science and engineering graduates. But the digital skills most in demand are not necessarily the ones most people expect.

While the demand for “deep technology skills” continues unabated, the more pressing need is for people who are able to support digital adoption and transformation – the “hybrids” who understand the potential of the technology and also how to match it to organizational needs. The most in-demand jobs in technology are for business and systems analysts, project managers, business development, and sales and marketing, according to a recent survey by the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC).

Because as important as people who invent new technologies are, without people to support the adoption of those technologies, there is no innovation. Innovation is not just about making new technologies but rather about using them to “do” differently. Canada needs to step up its game if it is going reap the promise of new technologies and digitization. In spite of all the hype about the disruption that would be wrought by artificial intelligence, a study by Statistics Canada revealed that only 10 per cent of large firms had adopted AI, and this dropped to three per cent for small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

Overall adoption rates are significantly lower than the U.S. in part because of the structure of the Canadian economy. While 50 per cent of U.S. private sector employment is with large companies with the economies of scale and resources needed to be early adopters, Canada’s private sector is 90 per cent SMEs that are often, in the words of one information and communications technology (ICT) executive, “bad slow” in adopting advanced technologies.

Just as COVID accelerated the digitization of work across economic sectors, it has transformed approaches to training and upskilling as well as skills utilization and talent management practices in organizations. With the growth of AI-enabled systems, the growing emphasis on technology adoption and user-centred approaches, new roles are emerging. Employers are starting to look more at skills than at credentials in an effort to expand their talent pool.

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While they continue to scoop up the available talent with deep technology skills, companies are also looking at ways to expand their expertise by developing alternative pathways to digital roles and training existing employees. AT&T, for example, invested US$1 billion to retool 50 per cent of its workforce. Google, Apple and IBM, Shopify, Telus and Slack are finding new and novel ways to identify talent, relying less on credentials. Cognizant offers a 12-week program to help people from diverse backgrounds become full-stack Java developers (who can do anything).

Many companies are also extending training beyond their organizational boundaries. For example, LinkedIn Learning, Microsoft Learn and the GitHub Learning Lab have provided training for 30 million people worldwide while Amazon Web Services is offering free cloud computing skills training for 29 million. Facebook has also announced a partnership with Coursera to offer programs on market analytics and software development to minority groups. But coding is just one piece of digital literacy. To go beyond the basic level, workers need to understand the role of technology and basic applications, privacy and security.

Clearly define digital skills

Understanding digital skills starts with making three distinctions. First, there are the skills that are required to develop the technology. These are normally found in employees who have completed post-secondary education and training in computing science and engineering. Second, there are the “hybrids” who combine business skills with technology skills. Finally, there are the basic digital literacy skills that virtually all workers need. Basic digital literacy skills are now essential “skills for success” along with basic literacy, numeracy and people skills. These different skills are depicted in figure 1.

The lack of shared precision about what digital skills are needed creates distortions in policy. A pre-COVID study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), for example, revealed that Ontario employers rated digital skills as their greatest need. However, disaggregating the data showed that three-quarters of those surveyed were referring to use of software such as Microsoft Office products including Excel and PowerPoint). Fifteen per cent were referring to use of applications such as SQL and data analytics. Only 10 per cent required the deep technology skills typical of engineers and computer scientists.

Being clear about what we mean by digital skills opens up opportunities for more diversity. It creates pathways for groups that tend to be excluded from post-secondary programs such as computer science and engineering.

For example, in spite of decades of advocacy, there are only marginally more women in engineering and fewer computer science than there were 30 years ago. Yet more than ever, there are women leading the largest ICT companies in the U.S. and launching digital startups – many of them without computer science or technology degrees.

While immigrants and some racialized people are over-represented in the ICT sector, more than 40 per cent of internationally educated engineers are under-employed, meaning that they are working in a job that does not require a degree, despite possessing an engineering degree. Black Canadians and Indigenous peoples are significantly under-represented. Indigenous Peoples represent slightly more than one per cent of ICT workers.

Systemic barriers are complicated by work environments, which are often hostile or even toxic. More attention needs to be placed on removing barriers to women and other diverse engineers and computer scientists. But there is also an opportunity to rethink what we mean by digital skills beyond narrowly defined disciplines and to create new pathways for diverse talent. We can encourage the participation of a wider workforce by broadening the definition of digital skills, because many people already have experience with the basic software that is required for the job.

Create new access routes for digital

We also need to learn from corporations that have adopted innovative approaches to upskilling and reskilling their employees, creating new pathways to digital roles. In Canada, there are many innovative programs geared to helping people from diverse backgrounds and educations transition into digital roles while building on the skills they have. For example, the ICTC’s Edge Up program has focused on transitioning engineers in Calgary from declining industries such as oil and gas to digital roles, with 70 per cent employment rates in a tough market.

Innovative approaches such as work integrated learning (WIL) and microcredentials help people from non-technology backgrounds transition into digital roles. For example, the Advanced Digital and Professional Training (ADaPT) program has produced good results for women, racialized and Indigenous university graduates, often in arts or social sciences. Of the 900 people who have participated, 90 per cent have been placed, many in digital roles.

Another example is the Rogers Cybersecurity Catalyst, which offers a training and certification program for diverse learners with varied backgrounds. Sixty per cent of those enrolled are women, and the program has a high placement rate. Palette Technologies also offers an employer-centred rapid training and upskilling program and has trained more than 100 people for jobs in growing industries.

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There needs to be continued efforts to promote women and other under-represented groups in engineering and computer science. But it needs to be less about good intentions and more about setting targets, scaling what works and holding gatekeepers accountable. Decades of talk have not produced the results expected, and a co-ordinated approach is needed.

This must extend to Black and racialized youth, Indigenous Peoples and persons with disabilities who can benefit from programs tailored to their needs with wraparound supports. The company NPower offers in-demand technology certifications employment for marginalized youth with a 90 per cent employment rate. Jelly Academy is an Indigenous-owned and Indigenous-operated digital marketing and microcredential program for diverse youth that has helped 94 per cent of its students obtain employment in the ICT sector. Plato, another Indigenous-led initiative, has trained more than 150 Indigenous software testers, with good success. Specialisterne has enabled more than 10,000 people on the autism spectrum or with similar neuro-diversities land competitive jobs. The Ontario Web Developers Network (OWN) initiative focuses on newcomer women in particular and has prepared 250 women for IT roles in Toronto and Ottawa.

It is also important to understand that all jobs increasingly require some level of digital skills. Digital literacy is listed alongside numeracy and communication skills as one of the essential components of the new skills for success program from Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC). This was developed to identify the nine key skills needed by Canadians to participate in the labour market and modern society. Community-based programs such as Canada Learning Code can make these skills accessible. But developing digital skills and confidence starts early, so we need to invest upstream before gender stereotypes become embedded and students self-select out of math and science, which are essential building blocks to pursue disciplines such as computer science and engineering.

Skills mismatch is not just a supply-side problem that requires that job seekers to be “fixed.” Employers, in particular, need take a hard look in the mirror to identify and reduce barriers and bias. Strategies should be based on evidence – about the skills required, how to assess and develop them, and most of all to assess what works for whom and to build on successes to create a well co-ordinated skills and employment ecosystem. Above all, conventional wisdom can be challenged on the nature of digital skills and the pathways to digital jobs.

This article is part of the Future of Work and Skills Training special feature series.

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Wendy Cukier
Wendy Cukier founded the Diversity Institute at Ryerson University, and leads research for the Future Skills Centre and the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub. She co-authored Innovation Nation: Canadian Leadership from Java to Jurassic Park. Twitter @CukierWendy
Namir Anani
Namir Anani is president and CEO of the Information Communication Technology Council of Canada (ictc-ctic.ca). He is the chief strategist and driving force in bringing ICTC’s world-class centre of expertise and services to industry, education and government; shaping Canada’s digital advantage in a global economy.

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

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