As published in The Globe and Mail

Across North America, businesses and industries are facing fierce global competition alongside inflation and tightened labour markets. In Canada, these challenges are directly affecting core industries, which drive much of our economic performance, including energy, financial services, transportation, healthcare and agriculture.

Against this backdrop, common threads in discussions I have with business leaders in Canada are around more efficient operations and the investment strategy required to better compete on a global stage. This includes a focused plan on how we strengthen digital and technical skills across core industries. Many organizations have started to tackle this challenge, however, with mounting global pressure, leaders must act quick and take proactive steps on uplifting skills and ensuring a refreshed workforce strategy is in place.

There are roles today that no one could have envisioned 10 or 20 years ago, let alone studied for in post-secondary education. A recent study from LinkedIn reports that the skills needed for today’s jobs have shifted by 25 per cent since 2015, with that number expected to hit 50 per cent in the next four years as expertise in such areas as cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, cloud and quantum computing becomes in even greater demand.

A recent report from the Conference Board of Canada further ranked Canada second on its global education and skills report card. We received high marks for delivering quality education, however, underperformed when it came to workplace skills training and lifelong education.

With a trendline like this, Canada’s current technology skills gap is poised to be a significant challenge across many industries.

The starting point for a plan to address the skills gap is the investment in a workforce strategy that meets evolving business models while also ensuring employees are sufficiently prepared for success.

An example of this in action is in the energy sector where Suncor Energy is addressing the digital talent gap by investing in educational programs for their employees to bolster data science, engineering, cybersecurity and automation engineering skills that are aligned to various job roles. Or, in Canada’s agriculture industry where McCain Foods is increasingly investing in digital and data and analytics roles as part of a focused effort to use technology to transform the agriculture industry.

Formalized re-entry programs, such as the one at IBM, are a second avenue to build digital and tech skills. With increasing demand for digital skills outweighing supply in the Canadian labour market, these programs offer an opportunity to transition people back into technology roles after career breaks, while preparing them for jobs of the future. The programs can also contribute to improving gender diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) roles.

For example, in Canada we know that, on average, women continue to be more likely than men to take time away for parental leave – a trend which grew exponentially over the last few years during the pandemic. Looking forward, we have an opportunity to create programs and environments to enable many women who might have left technology roles to re-enter their fields. Experiential learning, free skills training and mentorship are all important parts of re-entry programs.

Another population within Canada who could benefit from more formalized re-entry programs are military veterans, more than half of whom transition to new civilian careers after retiring from military service. Some continue their paths by joining digital frontlines and translating the skills and practical experience earned through military service into careers in cybersecurity, analytics and artificial intelligence.

Skill development does not need a classroom setting to be successful. It does, however, require commitment from organizations to provide low-barrier opportunities for learning that help build and maintain a robust talent pool. Workers must also be motivated to proactively develop their skills to meet the demands of the jobs they have now, and the ones they want in the future.

The bottom line is that Canadian organizations must invest in building a workforce with the skills needed for a digital economy if the country is to remain competitive globally.