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McMaster University student Ashley Abraham hopes her integrated business and humanities program at the Hamilton school will help her find a job or create a business where her work feels meaningful.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Young people entering the work force in the next five years are going to need a combination of digital literacy, technical skills and soft skills such as creativity, problem solving and entrepreneurial ability to compete. The problem is that most employers – and most youth – don't think young people are ready. To give young people a chance to succeed, the responsibility is falling on universities to pioneer new programs and learning opportunities that can meet the demands of the automated work force of the future.

Over the next decade, advances in technology and automation will transform more than 40 per cent of Canadian jobs, researchers at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship predict. Most jobs will require a completely new set of skills from employees.

Ashley Abraham, a second-year student at McMaster University in Hamilton, is not certain what her career path is going to look like, but she knows one thing for sure: Whatever she does, she wants to help people.

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She laughs as she says this, but like many young people today, she knows that an ironed-out plan will only take her so far.

Ms. Abraham is in the Integrated Business and Humanities (IBH) program at McMaster.

She says that after graduating, she hopes to find an entry-level position at a non-profit organization where her work feels meaningful. Then she might go back to school, and perhaps even start a business of her own.

She is optimistic, but is aware that she will need to be able to innovate and to adapt. She believes her choice for university is going to give her a necessary competitive edge.

The IBH program at McMaster started in 2017. It offers students a combination of traditional business classes and broader humanities courses aimed at providing "the skills and knowledge to recognize, understand and constructively engage with complex social needs and diverse perspectives," according to the university website.

When Ms. Abraham first heard about the program from a presentation at her high school, she thought it was too good to be true. It was the only program she had found that could give her what she really wanted – a commerce degree with the option to round out her education with another subject from another stream.

“I’ve worked with a lot of non-profits, and their upper management doesn’t have a commerce degree and so they tend to make these really awful decisions in terms of they’re losing a lot of money or they’re hemorrhaging money in all these spots,” says Ms. Abraham, whereas business people may make decisions that are not sensitive to the needs of the organization because they come from a strictly business perspective.

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The integrated degree program offers what Ms. Abraham thinks is just the right approach.

"It's awesome to be able to think about something in more than one way," she says.

"Learning to do that is really important, and I think that employers look for that, being able to think outside the box."

According to recent research from the consultancy Deloitte, the Brookfield Institute and The Royal Bank of Canada, Ms. Abraham isn't wrong. The ability to think outside the box, to adapt, and to think about things from unconventional perspectives are exactly what future employers are looking for.

"They'll be looking for people who have high emotional intelligence, who have motivational drive, who have a high comfort with ambiguity," says Stephen Harrington, a lead talent strategist at Deloitte. "Employers are beginning to realize that hiring somebody to do something static for five to 10 years is becoming untenable."

AUTOMATION AND TEMP WORK

By now, it’s common knowledge that the work force in Canada is changing fast. The rise of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) has led to uncertainty and anxiety about job security, but researchers say that jobs will not necessarily disappear in the foreseeable future – just shift.

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A recent study from the Brookfield Institute predicts that 42 per cent of Canadian jobs are at high risk of being disrupted by automation in the next 10 to 20 years.

"We're beginning to find opportunities at scale and at relatively low cost to automate what has been traditionally thought of as white-collar jobs," says Mr. Harrington, adding that even careers typically thought of as ironclad, such as law, are seeing new technologies take over some of the more repetitive parts of the job.

Alongside automation, Mr. Harrington says another factor in what he and others call "the fourth industrial revolution" is the rise of contingent, non-traditional work.

In an annual review of the 2017 labour market, Statistics Canada indicated temporary jobs grew faster than permanent ones, a trend seen since 1997. According to the C.D.

Howe Institute, the contingent work force in Canada has grown from 4.8 million to 6.1 million in the last 20 years.

According to Mr. Harrington, there isn't enough data to predict how the contingent work force is going to alter the Canadian employment landscape, but he is sure about one thing: "Both the contingent work force and the automation trend are not going after jobs, they're going after tasks," meaning that jobs themselves won't decrease in number over the next several years, they will just start to look different and require different skills.

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Many organizations have begun thinking of future jobs as existing under clusters or archetypes. These archetypes describe groups of skills that can be used in a variety of positions with only a few technical upgrades. It is this transferability of skills that employers believe is the most effective way to face the future of work.

"This might sound really tactical, but the ability to seek information, make sense of it, and know what to do, how to take action, is actually a very underdeveloped capability in the market today," says Mr. Harrington. In his view, the ability to keep learning and adapting as the work force changes is one skill that will be important in any job or career path of the future.

A report from the Brookfield Institute indicates that "youth aged 15 to 24 are one of the most vulnerable segments of the population to the effects of automation, making up nearly 20 per cent of high-risk occupations in 2011."

The report goes on to note that 83 per cent of education providers said they think students are adequately prepared for the work force, while only 44 per cent of youth and 34 per cent of employers felt the same way.

IT STARTS WITH EDUCATION

The evidence shows that the gap between youth and employment starts with education.

"The problem that we have is that the system is trying, they just can't get it scaled at the pace that the industry needs. We've got a gap. We've got this time where industry shifted and universities are trying to change but we've got funding, and approval processes, and tenureship and all kinds of stuff that exist between," says Krista Jones, managing director of the work and learning sector at innovation hub MaRS.

According to Ms. Jones, students making their way into the work force need three critical skills: technological know-how for the industry they are in, a passion for some element of the work, and a desire to continue learning as the industry develops.

Universities, she says, need to be equipping students with these skills by breaking from traditional learning structures.

"Over 50 per cent of entry-level jobs are hybrid jobs, and what a hybrid job means is that the skills needed to work in it come from two separate education paths," says Ms. Jones.

The best way to prepare students for this reality is through entrepreneurship programs, which Ms. Jones says are offered at most universities now, and through integrated learning opportunities such as McMaster's IBH degree.

"[Universities] need to teach more entrepreneurial skills because that's what workers are looking for, they need to start to teach hybrid-type degrees, as opposed to just preparing people in these really deep fouryear degrees, and then they need to provide experience," says Ms. Jones.

Ms. Abraham's program at McMaster has a mandatory experiential learning component. Students get the chance to bring their learning to businesses in their community.

Throughout the degree, students work on projects drawn from real-world problems, and professors aim to engage students in work that mirrors real-world experiences.

“We do a lot of group work,” says Ms. Abraham. She adds that she dreaded group work in high school, but IBH has helped her have a change of heart. “In the work world you do have to work with people and part of your job does affect their job or part of their job. I think that’s missing a lot. I think a lot of programs try to incorporate group work, but it’s not incorporated well.”

According to Ms. Jones, the problem is that programs like IBH are still quite small.

Ms. Abraham's class has about 50 students, and the school projects about 80 students will be enrolled next year. The program is competitive: The average entrance GPA is 88 per cent. The advantage is small class sizes, more one-on-one time with professors, and a strong community of people working toward the same goals.

But these types of programs, Ms. Jones says, need to be accessible to everyone.

INNOVATION IN EDUCATION

The IBH program at McMaster is only one example of many innovative approaches to multidisciplinary, work-integrated learning programs across the country. Most schools offer co-op work placements in select programs, or provide opportunities for internships and practicums to offer students more experience. The Dev Degree at Carleton University in Ottawa, for example, combines classes and traditional learning with paid work terms at Shopify over the course of the degree. The program enrolls 50-per-cent women, too, making it a leader for women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields.

That is another benefit of innovative programs, according to researchers. New learning models have the potential to increase diversity in fields such as STEM, where certain groups have been traditionally underrepresented.

Ms. Abraham says her program at McMaster is diverse, both in terms of students' backgrounds as well as in the interests they intend to pursue. Some integrated business humanities students want to work for nonprofits, as Ms. Abraham does, while others plan to open restaurants, start their own businesses or pursue law.

Bringing a diverse range of backgrounds and interests together like this, Mr. Harrington says, is a precursor to a successful future workplace.

"The business case for inclusion could not be more obvious," he says. "Imagine a client who's trying to penetrate the consumer market and they're stuck in this mode where everybody looks and sounds the same because of a dominant culture. How will they ever reach that consumer base?" A report from the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation suggests that there is a direct correlation between diversity and productivity for any business. Specifically referencing ethnocultural diversity, the report notes that a 1-per-cent increase in ethnocultural diversity was associated with an average 2.4-percent increase in revenue and a 0.5-per-cent increase in workplace productivity.

CHANGING BUSINESSES

As a result, companies are starting to pay attention. Mr. Harrington works with organizations to help develop talent strategies that will hire the best possible teams. He has noticed that companies need to make change from the top down.

"What we have to remember is that organizational structure itself is designed to reduce risk, and that's why we have so many clients who are actually beginning to think about structuring their businesses differently," says Mr. Harrington. "We're going to need future leaders who know how to challenge traditional organizational structures, decompose them, start to move toward teams of cross-functional experts who have a mission."

This means that hiring strategies are going to be shifting away from skills and experience and more toward personal attributes. Some companies, MaRS's Ms. Jones says, are even employing AI technology to help eliminate initial biases in the hiring process and unearth more unlikely matches.

“Even though it can be messy and uncomfortable and sometimes it can take a little bit more time, bringing more diversity of thought and more inclusion to that conversation necessarily yields better results, and in a business context, that means making more money,” says Mr. Harrington.

For many students, the next five to 10 years will be rife with change and uncertainty. The job landscape is changing on a massive scale, and education systems are at pains to keep up. The future of work, however, is not bleak. The rise of experiential learning, and the increasing availability of technical upgrading courses and short-term learning opportunities, and the innovative ideas being generated by diverse minds across the country are beginning make room for new models of learning and working in Canada. The challenge is to stay adaptive and stay ahead of the curve.

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