Canada needs new data for a new economy

It’s time to focus on assessing skills in workforce development as we prepare for the inevitable job shift

When the federal Liberals took power in 2015, they made evidence a key priority in policy-making. Michael Barber, known for his groundbreaking work in “Deliverology,” the science of getting results, was brought in to advise key government decision-makers, and results and delivery units were created within federal departments. Across almost every ministry, there was a renewed focus on data.

Yet, three years on, we still don’t have the data that will enable the development of a future-forward workforce in Canada. We have data that focuses largely on traditional occupations. But the changing nature of jobs and, in particular, the need for whole new skill sets, requires we broaden our thinking.

Canada is sitting at an economic inflection point. Intelligent automation, artificial intelligence (AI) and other emerging technologies are set to reshape the Canadian job market. It isn’t necessarily job loss we should be worried about, but job shift – and whether Canada is ready. We need the data to guide us.

We need to understand the specific skills and competencies required for future jobs, so that we can better match the supply and demand sides of the labour market. The federal government’s focus on evidence-based policy is essential now more than ever.

Many regions have figured this out already, including the European Union and Australia, and it’s time for Canada to catch up. In the United States, the O*NET digital database breaks down occupations into the skills, knowledge, competencies and credentials that are required for a particular career path. The database goes so far as to assess industry outlook and growth potential, to give users an idea of where jobs might exist in the future.

Tomorrow’s jobs – the ones where farmers, framers and financial analysts will all be working with digital technology – will each require vastly different skill sets. For Canada to compete globally, we need to ensure that all sectors of the economy are working to deploy individuals with the necessary future-forward skills.

Adding further complexity to our workforce development challenges are looming retirements and global trade relationships. Each of these pressures will also require us to rethink our delivery of skills.

With an entire generation of baby boomers sitting on the edge of retirement, it’s critical to know what skills will be most important to retain, so that knowledge transfer and mentorship programs can be most appropriately and efficiently designed. In times of change, we can’t afford to let these repositories of knowledge slip away untapped.

There has also never been a greater need for Canada’s businesses to penetrate new global markets. And the demand for the human skills that allow us to build out inter-cultural relationships is sure to rise. Skills like language, adaptability and cultural awareness will enable the necessary growth of our export markets.

For Canada to pivot, and shift our thinking on data for workforce development, one idea worth exploring is to poll employers – particularly those in high-growth sectors – to build data on the skills that are most in-demand. The time to do so is ripe for a number of reasons.

Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada has recently convened industry leaders and executives across six of Canada’s highest growth sectors, in what they are calling the Economic Strategy Tables, with the goal of identifying sectoral growth opportunities. The ministry is also putting up approximately $1 billion to fund the transformation of five regional innovation ecosystems. There are hints from the federal government that more sectoral strategies may be on the horizon.

With the leaders of our high-growth sectors and innovation superclusters all sitting at the same table, we would be remiss to pass on the opportunity to begin building more robust data on our future skills needs.

Not only do we have the players lined up, but there’s never been a better opportunity to execute. Statistics Canada is flush with new funding, the Labour Market Information Council is ramping up to full power and the Future Skills Centre will be launched in late 2018. Each institution would be more than capable of collecting such data.

This government has shown a strong commitment to data. But for Canada to optimize our workforce development potential and global competitiveness, an essential step forward needs to be better data related to skills.

As the world of work is being disrupted, we need to disrupt our thinking about data, too.

Daniel Komesch is a senior policy analyst at Polytechnics Canada.


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