President, Microsoft Canada.
Canada’s digital economy is growing at an unprecedented rate and rapidly outpacing growth in our skilled digital work force. As the president of a technology company, this is hugely concerning to me. My role is to help our Canadian customers use innovative technology to enhance their competitiveness, but the reality is it doesn’t matter how advanced the tools are if our customers do not have the technical talent to use them.
These concerns are not mine alone. When I speak with other talented women and men leading Canada’s tech sector, they voice the same anxieties. We talk often about the “digital skills gap” – projected by the Information and Communications Technology Council to result in more than 200,000 unfilled jobs by 2020 – and the need to invest in Canada’s digital work force for the most in-demand skills. We have an immediate need in the most cutting-edge technologies, such as the Internet of Things (IoT), mixed reality and the area that holds the most promise to me, artificial intelligence (AI).
By 2019, market intelligence provider IDC estimates that 40 per cent of digital transformation initiatives will use AI and 75 per cent of enterprise applications will use AI by 2021.
Several of the world’s leading AI academics call Canada home, and yet the vast majority of Canadian businesses are not ready to capitalize on this advantage. As technology leaders, we are hyper aware of the technology tsunami that will affect every industry and government sector. Human nature unfortunately loves the status quo, but technological advancement is not patient or polite. If Canada does not invest in the training and development needed to thrive, it will be left behind.
McKinsey & Co. recently launched a study on Canada’s readiness for AI-driven disruption, and the results are startling. They found that while 89 per cent of Canadian business leaders believe AI will create major positive change in three to five years, only 34 per cent have adjusted their long-term strategies to take advantage of AI’s potential benefits. Further, they found the basics of AI are not widely understood and current AI applications are not transformative – Canadian businesses are just scratching the surface of what’s possible with AI. All of this points to the same fundamental problem: a talent pool that is not fully prepared to take advantage of opportunities that are available today.
These are big challenges that require big thinking: How can we develop the skills of our existing IT talent to meet the most in-demand jobs? In our digital world, every IT professional needs to be engaged, curious and continually learning to keep pace with the evolving landscape. This includes me. It includes my leadership team and it includes every person in my organization. I’ve made it a priority to continue training to ensure my vision for the future stays relevant and capitalizes on economic opportunity. I have deliberately built digital skilling into the performance expectations for each of my leaders. We have invested in training to support the skills capability of our partner network, education leaders and provincial and federal government team members, because it is the right (and necessary) thing to do.
To help others do the same, Microsoft Canada is investing more than $2-million this year in programs, courses, OpenHacks and resources to help developers and data scientists update their skills and get hands-on training. We recently announced the Microsoft Professional Program for Artificial Intelligence, a program that teaches aspiring AI engineers the skills needed to build deep-learning models for AI solutions. We are also investing in companies such as Element AI, an applied-research lab that is helping Canadian businesses transform with AI and machine learning.
We are only at the beginning of a tech-skills shortage. Canada’s tech industry must work closely with academia and policy makers to ensure that Canadian tech talent can compete on a global scale. And if we’re really committed to securing Canada’s digital future, we must think beyond the next five years and train tomorrow’s work force.
I am a father. I’ve coached baseball and hockey for girls’ and boys’ teams. The optimism of youth is infectious. I think a lot about what the future will hold for my children. I joined Microsoft nine months ago; before that, I worked at the same technology company for a decade and a half in a progression of roles and responsibilities. I know this will not be the reality for my children. In fact, it is likely my kids will have job titles that don’t exist yet. Ensuring my kids and the children of Canada are set up for success in a globalized world is clearly just as important as the work I’m doing to help our customers thrive.
Being engaged with the ubiquitous nature of technology, learning to code, infusing creativity and augmenting human ingenuity with the power of computers are important steps that students can take to prepare for – and benefit from – Canada’s digital economy.
As the father of a daughter, it is important to me that we engage all Canadians when it comes to utilizing the tools for success in the digital economy. In the past year alone, through the work of our partners, we’ve reached more than 56,000 young people in Canada; of these young people, 50 per cent are girls and 80 per cent are underserved and Indigenous youth. We recently hosted students from the FIRST Robotics program at our headquarters in Mississauga, Ont., for YouthSpark Live – a day of coding, inspiration and career planning led by Microsoft staff and FIRST Robotics community leaders. The FIRST Robotics program inspires young people to be science and technology leaders and innovators, and is just one organization that we partner with, along with Canada Learning Code, Kids Code Jeunesse and Actua – to introduce STEM skills to young people across Canada.
We have the right talent here in Canada right now. We have an obligation as technology leaders to equip young Canadians and STEM professionals with an evolving set of digital skills. Ultimately, if we embrace this changing economy, we will lead the innovation revolution and I believe we can solve some of the world’s biggest challenges.
To learn more about teaching STEM skills to young people, visit firstroboticscanada.org.
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