President and vice-chancellor of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Oshawa, Ont.

Technological disruption is changing the way we live and work, sometimes in ways we are barely conscious of.

Artificial intelligence, robotics and other emerging technologies will have a major impact on the job market, dramatically altering tasks that are performed by humans. McKinsey and Co. reports that “about 60 per cent of all occupations have at least 30 per cent of activities that are technically automatable. This means that most occupations will change, and more people will have to work with technology.” On a global scale, the report predicts that automation could affect 50 per cent of the world economy.

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The good news is that this digital transformation will also add new job opportunities to the economy. A white paper by Royal Bank of Canada reports that the Canadian economy is forecast to have 2.4 million job openings in the next three years. But those jobs will be different from the existing ones as 50 per cent of jobs will undergo a skills overhaul.

How do we equip our workforce and university grads for jobs that don’t yet exist? How do we prepare them for a future about which nothing is certain but constant and rapid change?

Focus on ‘human’ skills

As more and more jobs become automated, human skills will become the game changer. The so-called soft skills of critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication, empathy and social perceptiveness, among others, are what makes humans unique in the age of automation. In his book Robot-Proof, Joseph Aoun, president of Northeastern University in Boston, suggests we focus on what he calls “humanics” as the best way to gain a competitive advantage over machines.

Encourage collaboration between public and private sector

Partnerships between higher education and industry, in the form of meaningful work-integrated-learning placements or summer jobs, not only provide enhanced experiential learning opportunities for students, but also catalyze innovation in the workplace as students bring a fresh perspective and mindset of risk-taking to tackling business problems. Co-operation between higher education and government is also critical.

The Teaching City initiative in Oshawa is a great example of university-community exchange, whereby the City of Oshawa has partnered with the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Trent University, University of Toronto and Durham College, turning the city into a living lab for facilitating applied research and exploring urban issues. And Digital Literacy Day in Toronto in May brought together the City of Toronto, academia and industry to put on educational events throughout the city to help the public update their digital skills.

Upskill workforce through lifelong learning

The new economy requires the workforce to constantly re-skill to stay relevant and employable, which requires engaging in lifelong learning. The traditional model, in which people focus on their learning in their 20s then get a job, is becoming obsolete in the age of disruption. This creates a challenge for higher-education institutions to be creative in providing offerings focused on adult workers, at a time and pace that makes the most sense for the learner.

Much has been written about the future of work and its risks, but there are also tremendous opportunities. All sectors of our economy will reward those who most quickly adapt and offer products and services in drastically altered, yet intuitive, ways. Take solace in knowing that those who are able to sharpen their human skills and adapt a new mindset of continuous learning and risk-taking will stay competitive in the automation age.

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