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Business Commentary Canadian CEOs must prioritize upskilling their work force to ensure future success

PwC Canada CEO Nicolas Marcoux

PwC

Nicolas Marcoux, CEO, PwC Canada

Shifting geopolitics, trade uncertainties, increasing protectionism and populism – all of these factors require business leaders to adjust their approach in the search to uncover growth. PricewaterhouseCoopers’ 22nd CEO survey confirms business leaders’ growth concerns in our current operating environment. Though almost half of the chief executives we polled across the globe expect economic growth to improve, nearly 30 per cent are projecting a decline – up from just 5 per cent last year.

While our survey suggests Canadian CEOs feel better about growth than their global counterparts, their optimism has dipped significantly – bringing it more in line with the global sentiment. As Canadian CEOs increasingly look inward for growth opportunities against a tough global economic backdrop, the imperative to transform their businesses has never been greater. Doing so will make sure our country remains a leader on the world business stage, rather than risk falling behind.

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Achieving this transformation, however, requires business leaders to get their arms around key issues such as data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) – issues which, to date, have proven tough to grasp.

Our survey revisited questions on data adequacy we first posed to CEOs in 2009. Ten years on, CEOs are still saying they lack the insights they need, especially when it comes to better understanding evolving customer preferences. AI is another area that continues to confound business leaders. While the majority of Canadian CEOs I meet – and those who responded to our survey – tell us AI will significantly transform their business within the next five years, very few say they’re actually using AI in their organizations beyond very limited and specific applications.

There’s no doubt the organizations that close the data information gap the fastest and use AI broadly across their business, will be the ones to succeed. Closing the talent gap to make sure we have the skill sets needed to leverage data analytics and AI to create value will be critical to our collective success. Of course government and educational institutions have a role to play in making sure Canada produces a sufficient number of high-calibre graduates in fields that are key to our country’s economic success. But corporations, too, must bear responsibility for creating the talent that will help grow our businesses – and, in turn, our economy. Nearly half (46 per cent) of the CEOs we surveyed worldwide believed upskilling is the best way to make sure they have the right people for the jobs of the future.

Alarmingly, our survey also suggests Canadian CEOs have yet to adopt this stance as strongly, with most (41 per cent) putting an emphasis instead on establishing a strong pipeline direct from education in closing the skills gap – and only 16 per cent focused on upskilling. As business leaders, we simply can’t sit on the sidelines and wait for our trade schools, colleges and universities to deliver graduates with the in-demand skills of the future.

We’re in the midst of our own upskilling journey at PwC Canada to make sure we continue to meet our clients’ needs in a rapidly changing world. For instance, we’ve committed to training all of our people on basic data analytics tools as we continue to embed data analytics into everything we do.

Meanwhile, our Digital Fitness app helps our people (and our clients) keep up with digital change as they learn at their own pace about topics such as fintech, AI and smart cities. Other training helps our people make the most of platforms such as Google for Work, Salesforce, Workday and social media.

Upskilling is a complex journey that requires a significant shift in mindset – no easy feat for any large organization entrenched in its own ways of doing things. That said we can already see the rewards of persevering down this path. Our employees are beginning to uncover challenging new career opportunities within our firm, we’re embedding AI and robotic process automation in our internal processes, and we’re becoming better positioned to solve our clients’ problems thanks to our proprietary technology solutions and digital initiatives.

The CEOs we surveyed indicated they’re less interested in China and the United States as key prospects for growth. For instance, global interest in China as an important source of growth has dropped from 33 per cent to 24 per cent year-over-year, while global interest in the United States has dropped from 46 per cent to 27 per cent. This shift away from China and the United States creates a golden opportunity for Canadian businesses and governments to collaborate to enhance our country’s attractiveness for investment. Coming together to get upskilling right is a key step in a multipronged approach to help us secure a greater piece of the global economic pie – for the benefit of all Canadians.

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