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How to unlock the potential of Canada’s skilled work force

Graham Lowe is a Kelowna, B.C.-based workplace consultant, author and speaker. His latest book, with Frank Graves, is Redesigning Work: A Blueprint for Canada's Future Well-being and Prosperity.

The latest census release suggests that Canada should have a big competitive advantage in today's information-driven global economy. That's because 54 per cent of Canadians betwen the ages of 25 and 64 have college or university qualifications, a sizable jump from 48 per cent in 2006 and the highest of any OECD country.

But do Canadians' investments in higher education pay off for themselves, for employers and for society? To answer this question, we must look beyond the census numbers to examine how well workers' knowledge and skills are utilized and developed in their jobs.

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Canada's well-educated work force sets a high bar for employers' talent-management practices. Indeed, a pressing challenge for employers today is finding the best ways to translate human capital into productive potential in workplaces.

Research conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-ordination and Development (OECD) clearly shows that workers' productivity is directly related to their knowledge and skills. To unlock this potential, workers' jobs and workplaces must enable them to fully apply and further expand their capabilities.

This will require concerted effort by employers to close the gap between the capabilities workers possess and what they actually use on their jobs.

The OECD Skills Matter report documents widespread mismatches between workers' skills and their job requirements across 28 OECD countries, including Canada. Mismatches occur when either a worker's educational qualifications or skills are not required to perform their job.

According to the OECD's Survey of Adult Skills, about one in four Canadian workers reported being overqualified for their job and about one in 10 possessed higher levels of literacy than their job required.

Underutilized talent is associated with lower wages and reduced job satisfaction. It also means lost productivity and lower GDP growth. Over time, workers can lose capabilities they once possessed if they are not regularly used in their job.

Closing the capability gap will ensure skills do not atrophy, contribute to a more productive and satisfied work force, and potentially contribute to higher earnings.

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New evidence of the capability gap is presented in a book I co-authored with Frank Graves of EKOS. Using EKOS Research Associates' national work force surveys, we conclude that employers' talent-management practices have not kept pace with rising educational levels.

Between half and three-quarters of the workers we surveyed in 2015 reported being "often" or "always" able to learn, fully contribute their knowledge and skills, and take initiative in their job.

So what needs to change? The OECD's Survey of Adult Skills confirms that being able to use co-operative skills, influence and task discretion, and information-processing skills all have a significant positive impact on wages. Innovative work practices – such as team-based work, information sharing and learning, performance bonuses, and designing work to give workers more flexibility and autonomy in how to organize their time and do their work – also enable workers to contribute their skills and knowledge.

Yet, fewer than 30 per cent of Canadian workers are in these "high-performance" work environments.

In our book, we identify practical barriers as well as opportunities regarding the capability gap. On one hand, there is no real sense of urgency among Canadian workers about the need to improve innovation or productivity through job redesign.

Too few workers place high importance on job autonomy and decision-making – two key ingredients of a high-performance workplace.

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Yet, on the other hand, many workers express a desire for greater job responsibility and feel most engaged in their work when it is challenging, interesting and varied.

Organizational psychologists have shown that straightforward job redesign, such as providing enhanced job control and feedback, lead to improvements in employee well-being and job performance.

As work organizations become more flexible and flatter, they will require continuous adjustments that depend on active input from front-line workers. That's the secret sauce of the much-lauded Toyota production system and its spinoff "lean" work processes in many industries.

Now that Canada's unemployment rate is below 6 per cent, we can expect competition for talent to grow even more intense.

One of the most effective ways for organizations to retain staff, increase engagement and achieve higher performance is to tap their existing talent pool more deeply.

Identifying and then taking steps to close the capability gap must be part of this renewed talent-management strategy.

Then, Canada will not only be the best-educated country, it also will be reaping the dividends of greater prosperity and quality of life.

Some students at Alberta’s Lethbridge College say struggles in the oil and gas sector led them to enroll at the school’s wind turbine technician program. An instructor says applicants have to become comfortable with heights. The Canadian Press
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