Having portfolio of human skills key to surviving automation: Report

Critical thinking, social perceptiveness, persuasion among skills for the future
By John Dujay
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/02/2018

With an estimated 50 per cent of Canadian jobs expected to be affected by automation over the next few years, soft or “human” skills might be the best way for workers to buttress against job loss.

That’s according to an RBC report that examined 20,000 skills rankings across 300 job occupations to come up with a new set of six future skills clusters: solvers, technicians, providers, crafters, facilitators and doers.

“What we wanted to do is understand skills: What are the core skills and how much will they be in core demand over the coming years heading into the 2020s?” said Mathias Hartpence, economist and policy lead at the office of the CEO with RBC in Toronto. 

“We wanted to see if we can regroup occupations into different clusters based on connectivity or similarity of skill sets for different occupations,” he said. “How do you allow people to upskill themselves, to transition sometimes laterally or transversely? And this in contrast with more traditional siloed or vertical career paths.”

The report is intended to “catalyze the conversation, at the national level, in terms of how do we ensure our youth and our workforce is fully prepared for the changes to come?” said Hartpence.

The Humans Wanted: How Canadian Youth Can Thrive in the Age of Disruption report was created as part of the bank’s Future Launch program, a 10-year commitment to help young people prepare for the future world of work.

Hartpence and his team spent about a year on the report by starting with the U.S. Department of Labor’s O*NET database, which is a “very elaborate system of ratings for skills,” he said, and then mapping the data back to Canadian occupations or job projections.

“We’re an aging country in terms of our demographics and then you’re seeing these enormous technological shifts also taking place — digitization, automation, AI (artificial intelligence), whose impact will be seen probably even much more forcefully down the line,” said Hartpence.

Workers will need to cultivate a “portfolio of human skills” to survive the coming changes, according to RBC.

Types of soft skills

The report focused on a number of skills of the future such as foundational basis skills, high-level critical thinking, co-ordination, social perceptiveness, active listening and complex problem-solving, along with communication skills — reading, comprehension, active listening, writing and speaking — and social skills, social perceptiveness, co-ordination and persuasion.

Acquiring soft skills is a critical component of the future workforce, said Hartpence.

“Skills is the DNA of occupations, it’s what ties occupations together and allows transitions from potentially one occupation to the other.”

In financial services, automation and technological change is in full swing and employers have their hands full in managing that change, according to Jennifer Reynolds, president and CEO of the Toronto Financial Services Alliance (TFSA), which released the 2018 report Unlocking the Human Opportunity: Future-Proof Skills to Move Financial Services Forward, based on a survey of more than 80 executives.

“We’re going to need different skill sets because it’s going to be a combination of using the technology to better provide services and products, and make sure you’re delivering on customer expectations,” she said.

Industries such as the financial services sector are heavily automated today and are exciting places for young workers to consider a career, according to Reynolds.

But besides the obvious focus on technology, future employees will have to bring soft skills to those jobs, such as emotional intelligence, the ability to communicate well to influence people, and problem-solving, she said.

And candidates are beginning to add these soft skills to their resumés, according to Randy Quarin, senior partner at IQ Partners in Toronto.

“If you look at their experiences, there’s a lot of individuals that have gone to school for geography, for phys-ed, for English literature, for fine arts, and here they are selling enterprise software for 10s of millions of dollars that had nothing to do specifically with what they’re doing right now,” he said.

“The key word here is transferable skills; where people have been either let go, or they’re looking for a new job and they want to have their skills transferable into another industry.”

Those human skills will be important for the future when many people will jump to different careers and industries, especially if they are transferable.

“Case in point, the cannabis space is exploding right now, and up until two years ago, nobody had any real experience within cannabis per se, that they could put on the resumé,” said Quarin.

“All the individuals that we’re recruiting for the cannabis space, they are looking for transferable skills.”

“If I’m speaking as someone who’s never seen the cannabis plant before, never smoked before, (but) they truly understand the way the regulation system works within Health Canada, or they understand agriculture because they’ve worked within the forestry industry, those can be transferable into a medicinal thing,” he said.

Education’s role

But are schools focusing enough on these soft skills?

Institutions are teaching human skills, but they may need to shift their focus, said Sarah Watts-Rynard, executive director at the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum in Ottawa.

“It’s harder to put your finger on how you describe solving or how it is that you participate in active listening, for example… those are the kinds of skills certainly employers are looking for, but I think that’s a much harder thing to describe,” she said.

“There are ways of practising teamwork in education, there are ways of being a good communicator and there are elements in almost every program that speak to that.”

Often, you’ll hear the stereotypical criticism of millennials not having the verbal communication skills, said Reynolds.

“Everybody’s on screens and communicating and using text messages and messaging-type formats and I do think it’s incumbent upon the schools to make sure that we do develop that softer side too, and not make it all about the numbers.”

“It’s an evolution: We’re recognizing that those softer skills are important and we need to make sure that we’re retaining that within the educational system,” she said.

Skills-development institutions should begin to more formally teach soft or human skills so future workers are better able to manage disruption, said Watts-Rynard.

“It’s a matter of revisiting what the curriculum looks like already and where some of those skills elements actually do get picked up, and then to really identify the gaps.”

It’s important to consider how we can rethink our education systems, said Hartpence, and “catalyze so we redirect and improve our education systems where necessary, to allow for the transitions to happen in the future.”

Employers are starting to probe some of the areas that are more about the fringe part, the social part of education, or those extracurricular activities, said Watts-Rynard, “because those are perhaps the ways that people can best articulate where they gained teamwork skills or problem-solving skills or perseverance.”

While these kinds of skills may be prized by employers, they can’t always be taught in a school setting.

“Let’s assume we’re going to teach you the technical skill, what I want to know is: How do you feel about safety or tell me about a time that you worked as part of a team? How do you communicate with people because communication and the ability to problem-solve as part of a team is actually critical to you being mentored,” said Watts-Rynard.

Work-integrated learning might be another way to develop human skills, she said.

“Apprenticeship is like work-integrated-learning on steroids,” said Watts-Rynard.

“We’re starting to see more post-secondary programs trying to integrate co-ops and internships and those other kind of placements, recognizing that we can teach you everything there is to know about being an accountant, but until you actually are trying to work with a client or a spreadsheet in a real environment, you really can’t understand the complexity of trying to do that.”

Apprenticeships can be more about training to competence, according to Nobina Robinson, CEO of Polytechnics Canada in Ottawa, an advocacy group for 13 technical institutions across Canada.

“Apprenticeship is work-based learning, where you are spending 80 per cent on the job, but 20 per cent of your time you come back to class and you get in-class training,” she said.

That has not been done for a range of professions in Canada and it probably should be considered, said Robinson.

“Just because you have a BA in political science doesn’t make you a good policy analyst; just because you have a BA in commerce doesn’t make you a good marketing and salesperson for a company that wants to innovate.”

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