The broken loop (Executive Series)

Jobs without people, people without jobs
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/17/2014

Editor's note: Once a month, the Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) hosts a special seminar on a topic of interest to HR professionals and business leaders. Canadian HR Reporter covers these events for a special feature titled "Executive Series." The feature includes news coverage from one of our editors, plus commentary from SCNetwork's panel of thought leaders on strategic capability, leadership in action and organization effectiveness.

This web post contains all of these elements:

Canadian HR Reporter's news coverage
Redescribe the challenge by Michael Clark
It's time for an update, by Barbara Kofman
Future plans, by Trish Maguire

The broken loop

Jobs without people, people without jobs

By Liz Bernier

Canada’s so-called skills gap has inspired much debate over the past couple of years, with conflicting arguments from economists, researchers and politicians alike. 

“There’s actually a lot of debate about whether there’s a skills gap or not… I’m not going to try to answer it,” said Emad Rizkalla, president and CEO of Bluedrop Performance Learning in St. John’s, N.L., speaking at a Strategic Capability Network event in Toronto.

In certain specific sectors and regions, workers with particular in-demand skills can be hard to come by — that much is generally agreed upon, he said. But what about in your organization? 

“If we look at it from an individual level, I think organizations would say, ‘Yes, there is a skills gap in my organization,’” said Rizkalla — at least if the concept of a skills gap is based on this definition. 

“(It’s) the point at which an organization no longer grows or remains competitive because it cannot fill critical jobs with employees who have the (correct) skills and knowledge,” he said. 

But as some employers struggle to fill open positions with skilled workers, there is a broad base of highly skilled, knowledgeable workers left out in the cold: Immigrant professionals who are either unemployed or significantly underemployed, according to Jelena Zikic, a professor in the HR management department at York University in Toronto. 

Immigrant professionals

Canada has a history of bringing in  highly skilled, highly educated foreign-born professionals, said Zikic, who also spoke at the event.

“The immigration system is rapidly changing, as we speak, but we still have a lot of those skilled migrants in our labour market,” she said. 

“They’re a huge pool of talent… they’re also a key driver of our economy. And there are lots of studies to show that when they’re underemployed, when they’re in jobs that are lower and not really at the level they worked at before, the economy is losing money.”

Still, many experience real barriers in the labour market, and this is due to several factors, said Zikic. 

“(In particular), lack of social capital — they don’t know the people. And we know that 70 per cent of the jobs come from knowing people, the relationships, networking.”

Conducting a job search can be frustrating to begin with, but particularly so when many jobs are never actually advertised, said Greg Vertelman, a senior consultant in Toronto, and another speaker at the event.

“Forty-nine per cent of opportunities are filled through networking,” he said. “We’re seeing a huge lean towards hidden job markets, so this speaks to the importance of networking.”

When these foreign-born professionals run up against such barriers in the labour market, it can negatively impact their professional identities, said Zikic. 

“Making a career transition to a new country may mean that you may no longer do the work that you’ve done in the past, but it also may mean that you may no longer be who you were in the past,” she said. 

“Immigration is a major career transition but also a major life transition. So we have a lot of components that are coming together for these individuals.”

In response to those barriers, immigrants often take “survival jobs” or experience “career downshifting,” where they work within their field but at a much lower level. 

“They downshift to lower-level jobs. If they do that, they’re underemployed, but sometimes they also leave the labour market and decide that they will not engage in working anymore,” said Zikic. 

So, what does that mean for employers? 

“Basically it means that you are looking at important human capital, an important group of individuals in the labour market, talent that is influenced by both government policy-makers as well as employers. So you have a lot of say, you have a lot of power in terms of how will you craft paths for these people to either enter or to experience barriers,” she said.

Immigrant professionals can not only fill talent gaps within an organization — they can also create a competitive advantage, said Zikic. 

“We operate in a knowledge-based economy and we know that human capital is hard to imitate, so having better people, better-performing employees, will lead to better performance.”

Skills training

Even within our own organizations with employees who are already on the payroll, skills gaps can arise, said Rizkalla. And one major issue is the pace of change. 

“For most employees, on average, 50 per cent of the skills that they use on the job today are different every three years. And that is the pace of change, that’s why it’s a continuous learning and development situation,” he said. 

Many employees currently in the workforce are underqualified for their jobs, said Rizkalla. 

“The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) studied and looked at this issue specifically in terms of what per cent of Canadian workers on the job today are underqualified. They found that 33 per cent… of workers in most of your firms are underqualified for their jobs,” he said. “In the Canadian workforce today, 68 per cent of people are either overqualified or underqualified for their current job. That’s a staggering number.”

Part of the problem is many organizations — small businesses in particular — don’t train and develop employees, he said. 

“They don’t develop their people and if you look at the data, it’s actually quite stark in the sense that if you’re a small business with under 100 employees, you’re 30 per cent less productive than a business with over 100 employees. A big part of that is training people.”

We see the gaps growing particularly quickly in terms of digital learning — human knowledge is doubling every 13 months; by 2020 it will be doubling every 72 days, said Rizkalla. 

“I don’t think that formal postsecondary education is equipped to handle that aspect of the workforce.”

But one of the challenges around skills training is the fear from employers that “If I train them, I’m going to lose them,” he said. 

“Every shred of evidence (suggests) the opposite: If you don’t train them, you’re going to lose them.”

Add Comment

  • *
  • *
  • *
  • *