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Dave McCann is the president of IBM Canada

There is an unprecedented skills and talent gap in Canada, which has the potential to put business growth at risk. Last year, the Conference Board of Canada reported that skills vacancies represent $25-billion in unrealized economic value – $10-billion more than 2015. Technology is a critical engine driving transformation across industries, but as the gulf between the skills organizations need in order to deliver digital transformation and the availability of a workforce with those skills widens, the strength of this engine is at risk.

One of the most important considerations for leaders looking to tackle Canada’s tech skills gap is to evaluate how we better support participation and skills development for those who are underrepresented in technology roles today. From a business perspective, organizations with a diverse and inclusive culture not only exceed their financial targets, but also drive 45 per cent average revenue from innovation compared to 26 per cent in those that do not, according to a World Economic Forum report.

In Canada, the technology sector has made incremental improvements, but we are not where we need to be and have a long way to go. A report by Tech and People Network found slight increases in representation of equity-deserving groups in the technology industry including Indigenous peoples at 1.4 per cent, people with disabilities at 3.5 per cent and those identifying as LGBTQ2S+ at 9.8 per cent. According to Statistics Canada and Employment and Social Development Canada, Indigenous people make up 5 per cent of the population, people with disabilities are 22 per cent and people who are LGBTQ2+ are 4 per cent. While women make up 51 per cent of Canada’s population, they represent 35.8 per cent of the tech sector workforce.

As leaders, taking effective action will require us to not only identify and remove barriers, which can arise for those pursuing careers in tech, but to also ensure the right resources and supports are in place so individuals are set up for success. And as part of this, we can create different pathways for Canadians to pursue careers in tech.

Perhaps most important is to start with the perception of ability and capabilities. A recent IBM study found that two-thirds of Canadians don’t feel qualified to work in STEM jobs because they lack the right academic degrees, while others said training was too expensive and that they didn’t know where to start to find out about opportunities. Here lies an opportunity for tech leadership to level the playing field for entry. To address this issue, IBM is collaborating with various organizations and agencies in Canada to provide access to free training and clear pathways to employment opportunities. Partnering with the education sector to ensure we continue to integrate STEM into curriculum early will also serve to encourage students to expand their interests and consider what career opportunities may be available to them.

While we shift perception, it is equally important for business leaders to evolve our thinking on academic requirements, differentiating between traditional degrees versus digital skills when it comes to the skillset needed for certain roles. By solely considering set educational achievements across a range of roles, we rule out a number of potential employees who could make meaningful contributions if given the training and opportunity. A skills-first approach which embraces post-secondary school, online training, digital credentials and experiential learning can often meet the needs of both the person and the business.

Last, we have an opportunity to broaden access to technology training (for example, apprenticeships, online coursework and coding bootcamps) and to ensure this training is inclusive and free of bias. For example, IBM Canada participates in a global neurodiversity program that supports recruitment and professional development opportunities for neurodivergent individuals, and the free IBM SkillsBuild education program provides digital training, project-based learning and professional credentials.

The skills gap has the potential to significantly impact the advancement of Canada’s tech industry and hinder economic growth. Expanding access to training and education by removing barriers based on inequalities will not only enable more people to benefit from the digital economy, but also support the growth of the talent pool we need for the country’s workforce, now and in the future.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.