Arvind Gupta is a professor of computer science at the University of Toronto and the former CEO & founder of MITACS, a leading Canadian non-profit research and training organization. He is part of the team developing Palette Inc., a not-for-profit developed in partnership with the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship. AJ Tibando is the executive director of Palette Inc.
Whether you work behind a desk or on a factory floor, one thing is certain: Technology is changing the way you do your job. New technologies are creating entirely new industry sectors overnight, and corresponding pools of talent are sprouting up to support the heightened demand for tech workers with the right skills and experience.
In a challenge to the dynastic reign of tech hubs in Silicon Valley and Seattle, the emergence of pockets of talent north of the border is shifting the eyes of top tech employers to new locations. While this shift might reinforce the anxiety some have about the future of work in an increasingly tech-driven world, we believe it also represents a clear set of opportunities for Canadian workers.
Taking three of the top 15 spots in CBRE’s rankings of tech talent and job creation is a big deal for the still-growing tech hubs of Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal. Adding 82,100 technology-related jobs between 2012 and 2017 and beating out the likes of Silicon Valley for job creation is a significant accomplishment about which Toronto – a city once glanced over for tech talent – should be excited. Looking beyond Toronto, there is a broader shift toward growing demand for tech talent in Canada – a trend that Canadian workers should be hopeful about.
Some have argued that Canada’s thriving tech sector is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it offers highly valued and well-paying jobs in new locations. On the other, are misgivings about new ways of generating products and services that lead to the automation of some (often well-paying) jobs. The potential for job loss that could result from more automation, however, is unique from that caused by downsizing or recession. Workers displaced through automation can't simply take their skills and experience to a similar job at a different company, as automation is a phenomenon that can impact entire industry sectors. These workers often find themselves stuck, with little sense of how their skills can translate into employment in a growing sector.
As evidence, one need look no further than the rapid adoption of e-commerce, which threatens brick-and-mortar retailers. The tasks that comprise the job of an average retail salesperson have a 92-per-cent likelihood of being automated. In deciding their next steps, a laid-off retail worker might well consider an opening in a similar position; however, it is often the case that this type of job transition results in workers transitioning to similarly high-risk, highly precarious employment sectors. The good news here is that these cycles can be broken, given the right approach and game plan.
Breaking the cycle of automation-induced displacement requires that Canada develop a new approach to skills development for an often overlooked pool of talent – mid-career workers. In need of new pathways to growing sectors, these are individuals who have been in the workforce for at least 10 years in industries such as retail, manufacturing, and finance. Mid-career workers possess highly coveted skills and, more importantly, the work experience that tech employers desperately need to fuel their growth, such as sales, marketing, project management and operations. What they require to meaningfully participate and adapt to the rapidly shifting labour market is the right training programs and support, so they can apply their experience to a new sector.
The increasing need for a reskilling program to support this kind of cross-sector job transition was highlighted in a recent report by Canada’s Growth Council, chaired by Dominic Barton. Calling for new mechanisms that transition workers from sectors that are shrinking to those that are growing, the report singles out a new initiative, Palette Inc., for developing such a strategy.
Palette Inc. is designed to do three things: Identify the skill gaps employers are facing, analyze transferable skills of workers and create skilling pathways to match the two. Based on international best practices, Palette aims to be the connective tissue that brings together employers and workers through training based on labour-market needs. Done right, this would yield effective just-in-time reskilling and job-placement programs that meet the needs of both workers and rapidly growing sectors.
Automation can be scary for workers, as many of our existing reskilling systems were not designed to respond to its varying impacts. But this doesn’t have to be the case. There is a window of opportunity to build the right reskilling infrastructure so that all Canadians can thrive from a growing tech sector instead of being left behind. This window won’t last forever, and Canada must act now to ensure that our workers benefit from the continuing transition to automation.