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So-called “new-collar” jobs are requiring employers to think differently about hiring and retraining.

By coining the term “white collar” in the 1930s, American writer Upton Sinclair not only called attention to salaried clerical or managerial workers and the shirts they wore to the office, but also differentiated them from the blue collar already associated with the working class. IBM Corp. president Ginni Rometty added “new collar” in a 2016 article for USA Today that discussed the need to train and retrain workers for positions appearing more quickly than traditional education can keep up with.

IBM Canada president Ayman Antoun called attention to the severity of this staffing problem in a recent speech to the Economic Club of Canada by citing an Information and Communications Technology Council report that found the technology sector is projected to have 216,000 unfilled jobs by 2021. “To be equipped for this change and prepare our work force for the future, there is a critical need for us to reinvent our approach to education, training, re-skilling and recruiting to create the skills for the future,” Mr. Antoun said.

In discussing new-collar jobs, Ms. Rometty emphasized that not all of them would require a college degree. IBM began experimenting with a new educational approach in 2011 when it created Pathways in Technology Early College High School, or P-TECH, a six-year program that incorporates four years of high school plus an additional two years that leads to a postsecondary diploma. “We embed that with a practical injection of internships, mentoring, and the ability for industry to collaborate with the students in project-based activities, so they are getting a practical experience, including an enhanced curriculum,” Mr. Antoun said in an interview. The program focuses on four skill areas that IBM identified as essential to its future, including data and data analytics, cloud and networking, cybersecurity and digital client experience.

Today, the program is offered at more than 110 schools in eight American states, as well as in Australia, Morocco and Taiwan. IBM and its industry partners are in talks with educational institutions with the hopes of launching the program in Canada in September, 2019.

Skills transfer and retraining

A recent report, Humans Wanted, from Royal Bank of Canada highlighted examples beyond the technology sector, estimating that more than 25 per cent of Canadian jobs will be heavily disrupted by technology and half will undergo a skills overhaul. The report is far from bleak, estimating that the economy will add 2.4 million jobs over the next four years, but warns that Canada’s education system and training programs are “inadequately designed to help Canadian youth navigate this new skills economy” and that Canadian employers are unprepared to recruit and develop the skills they need to make their organizations more competitive. Recommendations include increasing the focus on skills development over credentials, and integrating work and learning opportunities, both in terms of educational programs offering work placements and workplaces encouraging more lifelong learning.

Skills upgrades and even re-skilling can take many forms, says Jenny Poulos, RBC senior vice-president of work force strategy and employee experience. “As jobs are changing, what we’ve done is make people aware of ways you can upskill,” she says, mentioning communication, collaboration and critical thinking as some of the top crossover skills.

Adding but not discarding options

Marie-Hélène Budworth, an associate professor in York University’s School of Human Resource Management, says that embracing the need to upskill can be challenging for mid-career workers because you start to think of yourself as an expert. “We have a tendency today as senior people within organizations to believe, now that I am at this level, I will do the more decision-making, high-level parts of the job. I’ll pass off the new skills to the new people,” she says. She adds that making ongoing learning a part of a workplace culture can help, as can embracing a variety of approaches, from internal webinars to support for outside courses.

While Ms. Budworth is enthusiastic about specific skills training for students, especially those with work placements, she says workplaces need to remain open minded in their hiring and remember that university degrees in humanities and similarly broad fields have long fostered the kinds of transferable skills seen as increasingly valuable, especially critical thinking, problem-solving and conversational skills. “I think those are important skills in today’s world of work when the problems are more complex,” she says.

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