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To be successful, youth need entrepreneurial skills and experience

CEO and Country Head, Barclays Canada

Artificial intelligence, robotics and technological advancements are transforming the global economy. In our daily discussions with our Canadian clients, the No. 1 strategic business challenge they confront is the impact that disruptive change is having on their businesses. The second-most important challenge for these same companies is how they attract and engage the most highly skilled employees to meet these challenges.

The effects of this global transformation are being felt across Canada, particularly by our youth, who are entering the work force at the exact time when vast numbers of traditional jobs are becoming obsolete, others are undergoing momentous change and new ones are being created. How do we best prepare our youth for a future filled with rapid change, challenges and opportunities? Like many Canadians, I believe the future prosperity of our country and our youth is dependent on how we change our behaviour today.

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Much has been written about the key skills needed to ensure we have the most productive work force possible. STEM educational programs, investment in vocational training and community colleges, comprehensive apprenticeship programs and improved access to risk capital are all important elements. But I believe one of the most important cornerstones of growth, productivity and wealth creation for Canada is creating a more robust culture of risk-taking.

An important part of the solution is to equip today’s youth with an entrepreneurial mindset and related business skills to succeed at creating new businesses. Supportive government policies and initiatives can help create a favourable environment for such change. Government investment in business and vocational education programs, tax policies that incentivize business investment and capital formation are helpful foundations. But the real onus for success in a primarily free-market economy to develop the next generation’s skills must lie with the business community. As Brookfield Institute highlighted in its 2017 report Future-proof: Preparing young Canadians for the future of work, entrepreneurial experience will prepare our young talent to succeed in a complex labour market that has fewer and fewer entry-level jobs, yet demands more experience and a wide range of skills.

Starting and running a business forces one to take risks, become comfortable with uncertainty and remain focused on goals. It also teaches one to be flexible, adapt quickly to new opportunities and challenges, hone persuasion skills and develop critical decision-making and leadership skills. Most importantly, it builds resilience. In a future filled with new, ever-changing technologies, all organizations – big and small, new and old – will be seeking individuals with these skills.

As part of Barclays’ citizenship work, we focus on helping individuals connect into work and entrepreneurs to scale up and grow. In my career as an investment banker, I have had the great fortune of working with many successful entrepreneurs. One powerful reality that has struck me over the years is the number of highly successful growth companies founded by Canadian immigrants. Over my career, I have attempted to better understand the underlying common threads to these success stories by interviewing the founders. As I met with more and more of these leaders, it all became crystal clear: These immigrant entrepreneurs took risks where others would not.

In almost all cases, the entrepreneurs had little to lose – they arrived in this country with great ambition, but little material wealth. Most of them arrived in Canada with a different valuable practical skill in which they were proficient, such as manufacturing, software programming, design and communications equipment. But even more importantly, they each had a powerful vision of their future, combined with energy and a commonly held view that initial failures were only stepping stones to eventual success. Their continued attempts to succeed not only helped them course-correct, but also taught them the importance of tenacity, self reliance, leadership and grit. In short, they all learned that fortune favours the brave.

I believe that our youth, while often well educated, are missing the important lessons of entrepreneurship and risk-taking. So how do youth get the entrepreneurial skills and experience they so desperately need? Global not-for-profit organization Junior Achievement (now known as JA), which has charters across Canada, is one option that I personally, along with Barclays, support. JA has been around for decades. JA Central Ontario, the largest charter, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, but it is now more relevant than before.

JA sparks and nurtures the entrepreneurial spirit inside youth and provides them with concrete skills and experience to succeed in the jobs of tomorrow. Through JA’s 18-week company program, high-school students gain first-hand experience starting and operating a successful company, from creating a business plan, through development, to taking their product to market.When I was in high school in Winnipeg, me and a group of fellow students started Survival II, a miniature company that made and sold winter-survival kits, through JA Manitoba. The experience had a profound impact on my thinking toward business and the important and positive role business has in advancing society. Importantly, this experience gave me a solid foundation and confidence to enter the world of business.

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Like me, for many students, participation in the JA program is a transformational personal experience. Equally important, it helps them overcome the dilemma of getting vital work experience to enter a work force that will have increasingly fewer entry-level jobs. For Canadian businesses, JA is doing much of the legwork of building and strengthening a talent pipeline they can tap into in the future.

At this point, experts are predicting a range of changes to the work force that may result from the spread of rapidly advancing technology throughout the economy. Regardless of which scenario plays out, we know we are looking at significant change and our youth need to be prepared to not only adapt but to thrive.

At Barclays in Canada, we are doing our part by supporting JA. In honour of JA Central Ontario’s milestone anniversary this year, me and seven other business leaders and entrepreneurs are volunteering time to give 24 JA friends a unique, curated experience to mentor and support young people for the ever-changing business world. Barclays is a proud partner of JA. I encourage others in the business communities across Canada to do the same, either by making a corporate donation or volunteering your time as a mentor. It is an investment from which we will all benefit immensely.

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