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Andrea Brunton is now a student in the Research Analyst Program at Humber College in Toronto after being laid off earlier this year.JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

Andrea Brunton graduated with a master’s degree in political science and environmental studies in 2016. A government internship and a research assistant position with a market research firm followed. And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“Everything shut down.”

And Ms. Brunton, like so many others, was laid off. So, she took the opportunity to go back to school to focus more on research, an area that had always drawn her.

“I’d like to get back to policy work and social research … such as work that addresses issues Indigenous people face … and sustainability,” Ms. Brunton says.

She applied to Humber College in Toronto for its research analyst graduate certificate program, which focuses on quantitative and qualitative analysis skills. She will complete the program via online studies next August.

Research analytics are part of the growing demand for data analysis skills.

With the COVID-19 pandemic sending shockwaves through the labour market, colleges are aiming to equip graduates for a pandemic-proof career, whether they are embarking on their first postsecondary program or returning to school to upgrade or learn new skills.

Accelerating trends

Those in the college sector say the pandemic has accelerated pre-existing trends, such as the need for technical and soft skills for what many call the fourth industrial revolution. This refers to the coming together of cyber and physical systems, such as the Internet of Things, and the use of new technologies, such as artificial intelligence. The effect it is having on jobs, such as automation threatening employment in some sectors but creating opportunities in others, is profound and is happening at a head-spinning pace.

This change requires more than technical skills and digital technology literacy, but also those soft skills needed to function in an online and digital environment where the only constant is change. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) notes the necessity of this mix of technical and soft skills in its report OECD Skills Outlook 2019.

Soft skills in a digital world

Humber College has been working for several years on its digital fluency plan, says Vera Beletzan, senior dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Innovative Learning.

“We believe that there are a range of complex needs that individuals have in order to work in a technologically enhanced environment,” she explains. “In a pandemic, even more so,” as employers need a work force that is adaptable and can work efficiently in an online environment.

Humber’s digital fluency plan is to embed the soft skills of interaction, collaboration and communication in all programs, so graduates meet what industry partners are telling the college they need: people who can work well with teams in virtual environments.

Other soft skills businesses say they require are critical thinking, professionalism and the ability to approach a problem with sustainability in mind.

In terms of specific job skills, the programs that are a big draw for students include business analytics, research analytics, digital business management, digital communications and mechatronics (a multidisciplinary field that includes mechanical engineering, robotics, electronics, and software).

In-demand fields

“What we have all come to realize is COVID has … accelerated existing trends [such as] digital transformation,” says Tom Roemer, vice-president academic at the British Columbia Institute of Technology.

This means employers are seeking graduates proficient in information technology.

Another field the college is getting inquiries about is construction, and the red-seal trades (indicating knowledge at a national standard) such as carpentry, plumbing, piping and sheet metal work.

“Federal and provincial governments are likely going to pump a lot of money into infrastructure” as an economic recovery tool, Dr. Roemer forecasts, making those trades in high demand.

Technologists will also likely be sought after, Dr. Roemer predicts. These are two- to three-year diploma programs such as quality control and field managers, who liaise between the office and job sites.

With an aging population, education in health care fields has also been of high interest since before the pandemic, Dr. Roemer says. This includes positions from nurses to lab technicians and radiation technologists. But COVID-19, of course, pushed these into greater need.

The broader information technology (IT) field has “exploded,” Dr. Roemer says, and the areas having to do with communications technology have received a boost in demand from industry as people suddenly started to work from home en masse. This is a trend that will likely last past the pandemic, he says.

Interdisciplinary programs are also a trend accelerated by the pandemic, he says. “There are new jobs that start at the intersection between two fields,” such as statistical analysis in digital health, where someone needs to understand the health field and also technology and data.

Another example is full-stack web development, which requires understanding the software as well as having design skills.

Technical sales is another field requiring interdisciplinary skills. “When you think of a company like Boeing selling a $150-million airplane … they need a highly qualified engineer who can operate in a global environment.”

“We are now proposing a masters degree in smart-grid management,” he says, which would include electronics, IT and cybersecurity skills.

Automation will create the need for interdisciplinary skills, whether in the field of automated vehicles or even logistics in an era of automated ports, requiring someone to understand customs, taxes and security, as well as the technology.

Dr. Roemer expects to see a decline in anything related to aircraft, such as aircraft mechanic or pilot. The slowdown in some technical disciplines started years ago, such as repair technicians: “No one repairs anything any more.”

Existing and new fields

Because of its east-coast location, Nova Scotia Community College has seen a rapidly emerging field in ocean-related studies, ranging from marine navigation to technologies helping to map the ocean floor, says president Don Bureaux.

But the emergence of new fields of study should not dissuade people from pursuing education in areas that were strong before the pandemic, says Denise Amyot, president and chief executive officer of Colleges and Institutes Canada, the organization representing publicly supported colleges, institutes, CEPGEPs and polytechnics.

“It’s harder for the hospitality and culinary arts industries,” she notes, but people in those fields will still be needed after the health crisis recedes, as those industries were desperately short-staffed before.

As for Ms. Brunton’s advice to other students?

“If I could go back five years, I would tell myself the job market is a lot more fluid and chaotic than school. Also: learn Excel.”

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