Roundtable: What skills are needed for the future?

‘Many CIOs, CTOs, CEOs are saying they’re taking on digital transformation but they’re not clear on what skill sets are needed’

Roundtable: What skills are needed for the future?

Canada will face a growing skills gap in the near future and business leaders need to adopt a number of strategies to address it, according to a recent IBM virtual roundtable.

“We’ve done some surveys and a lot of the organizations are saying, ‘We’re going to accelerate our digital transformation, we’re going to put the pedal to the metal on cloud and artificial intelligence’ and things like that,” says Claude Guay, IBM Canada president in Montreal.

“But what skills are needed? And what are the key trends and opportunities in Canada at the moment? What is the impact of this skills mismatch on underserved and underrepresented communities? And [what are] some innovative ways to address the issue?”

While the skills gap is apparent, many senior leaders are trying to discover what skills are needed to succeed, says Lekan Olawoye, CEO and founder of the Black Professionals in Tech Network (BPTN) in Toronto.

“Many CIOs and CTOs and CEOs are saying they’re taking on digital transformation but they’re actually not clear in what skill sets are going to be needed for this transformation. They’re still trying to figure it out themselves at the SLT [senior leadership team] level.”

The federal government recently outlined its own future-of-work blueprint.

Networking skills

One underused skill that may be needed hasn’t been considered before, he says.

“The opportunity right now for [people] is to network. This is a unique opportunity for those that may have been furloughed, for those that may be out of the job market, for those that may be looking for transformation in the job market, to look at ‘How can I be part of leading the digital transformation?’”

“How do we ensure hiring managers are going beyond ‘Let me simply ask my people to bring people to me’ but actually going into communities and building those relationships,” he says.

“What we know is the people in our network significantly look like us. That is race-agnostic: my network looks like me, your network looks like you, so the people that you tap will look like you. If we do not begin to fundamentally teach people how to network as a new skill, we will never hire the best talent. It’s really important from executives all the way down to that first-year associate, that you need to learn how to network incredibly well.”

But for some people in underserved communities, talk like this doesn’t resonate because “there’s 60 per cent displacement in [that] workforce,” says Pedro Barata, executive director at the Future Skills Centre in Toronto.

“This is a workforce that by definition is perhaps more disconnected from existing systems of support, it does not come with the same kind of social and economic capital. Workforces that have been most affected by the downturn in hospitality, retail, tend to be more women-dominated, tend to employ more workers from racialized backgrounds and also more newcomers.”

New realities

An overview of the current state of the jobs market in Canada reveals stark numbers.

“We experienced the greatest recession since the Great Depression back in March and April when we had the initial COVID-19 lockdown. We saw about three million workers lost their jobs. We’ve been able to recover about 80 per cent of those losses but we still more than 600,000 workers who lost their jobs,” says Shelly Hagan, a reporter at Bloomberg News in Ottawa.

Moving forward many things will not return to the old ways, she says.

“There’ll be some jobs that just won’t come back. For example, we’ve seen permanent closures in restaurants and bars and so we may need to see workers that have different types of skill sets in the future in order to get new jobs. The challenge moving forward is how do we get some of those workers who have lost jobs that they won’t be able to return to? How do we get them into these industries that are growing?”

In some areas, skills training is adapting to reflect new realities, such as what is happening in Alberta, within the oil and gas industry, says Barata.

“[There is a] diverse workforce with many internationally trained professionals who are engineers, geoscientists, who chose to come to the oil patch to build great careers and now they’re hitting a dead-end. What do you do with this talent? The City of Calgary is making its own shift to focus on tech careers and making that high-value pool zero in on what are the essential credentials around tech careers, data analytics, IT project management, full-stack software development; putting cohorts through that training, and being able to put them back into the job market and the opportunities that emerges that are profound.”

Quebec recently announced a plan to retrain 20,000 workers who have been affected by the pandemic.

One of the most needed skills is knowing how to educate yourself to address the future, says Guay.

“When I give a speech to fresh graduates coming into IBM to be consultants, I tell them that the most important skill is actually learning: learning to learn because the jobs and the things that you will do in 10, 15 years, when I’m retired, do not exist today. You’re going to need to adapt, you’re going to need to learn about continuous learning.”

Demographic considerations

Before CEOs attempt to discern what new skills are needed, more consideration is needed to take into account exactly who is affected by the economic crisis, according to Daniele Zanotti, CEO of the United Way Greater Toronto.

“The most vulnerable have borne the brunt of the health and economic impact of COVID. It is but the icing on a cake of layers of pandemics, income inequality, mental health, systemic racism, that have been with us for decades,” he says.

“When we talk about the future of work post-COVID, place matters. Geography has been absent from many of the discussions because we’ve conceptualized the future of work virtually. The crisis has exposed regions where there is increased vulnerability with specific sectors and specific groups: racialized immigrants, women, youth. The depth and importance of the digital divide has been really mapped out.”

And now, Statistics Canada will be able to provide this specific data, which it hadn’t done so before, according to Hagan.

“If we look at the unemployment rate nationally as October, it was 8.9 per cent, but for those who are not visible minorities, it’s much lower, around six per cent. If you look at visible minority groups, they have a much higher unemployment rate of 11.7 per cent. The data shows more often [they are] disproportionately affected by the pandemic job losses, they experienced more job losses than non-minorities.”

Coming out of the roundtable, Guay and IBM published five key insights for Canadian CEOs and business leaders to consider to ensure they have the skilled workforces they need to succeed:

Adopt continuous learning: Partner with businesses that offer micro-credentials, digital forms of certification for employees to upskill, reskill and adopt lifelong learning with or without a traditional degree.

Design with intention: Collaborate with non-profits to create programs designed to help disproportionately impacted populations (racialized communities, women, veterans) return to the workforce.

Consider long-term partnerships: Work with school boards and advocate for P-TECH (pathways in technology) schools or consider becoming an affiliated industry partner of an existing school to help students understand how their learning relates to the jobs of the future.

Prioritize soft skills: Encourage critical thinking, problem solving and conflict resolution as a means of preparing employees to learn hard technical skills and technology that may not exist yet.

Fill the network gap: Hire people outside of your network and take steps to diversify your community.

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