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Scott Stirrett from Venture for Canada

We are living in a fourth industrial revolution – millions of jobs in sectors as diverse as transportation, manufacturing, and retail have the potential of being automated. A recent report by the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship indicated that nearly 42 per cent of jobs are at risk.

In the wake of these changes, the skills that Canadians require to have successful careers are rapidly changing, and Canadian workers will need to adapt to stay ahead of the curve. Increasingly, attributes such as critical thinking, communication and emotional intelligence, all of which are often described as soft skills, are critical for career success.

Consequently, Canadians need to focus on developing not just technical skills (coding, engineering, data science, and others), but also essential soft – or what I will refer to later as human – skills.

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What exactly are 'soft skills?'

Unfortunately, the term soft skills is increasingly a buzzword and can often mean quite different things to different people.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, soft skills are "personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people." What is frustrating about applying the adjective soft to these kind of attributes is that it implies that they are unimportant, and a "nice to have" rather than a "need to have."

What is a better name for 'soft skills?'

In place of the term soft skills, I prefer Seth Godin's phrase human skills, as it provides an appropriately broad umbrella definition for describing a wide subset of characteristics relevant to working with others, thinking critically and being self-aware.

As part of this classification, Mr. Godin breaks human skills into five categories, which include "self-control, productivity, wisdom, perception, and influence." These categories encompass our ability to interact collaboratively with others, as well to think strategically and regulate emotions.

Why are human skills becoming even more important?

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Gone are the days where many workers perform the same repetitive task over and over. In an age of automation, the jobs that will remain will more often than not require critical thinking and collaboration skills. Technology can automate repetitive tasks, but it is much harder for artificial intelligence to compete against humans in roles that require social finesse and emotional intelligence, such as selling and managing people.

In 2016, the World Economic Forum published an extensive report called The Future of Jobs. One of the report's main findings is that "social skills – such as persuasion, emotional intelligence and teaching others – will be in higher demand across industries."

According to a survey of major employers by the Business Council of Canada, Canadian firms do not face a "comprehensive skills shortage," although there are some gaps in specific technical areas. Instead, the survey indicates that hiring managers identify soft skills as "most in-demand."

To succeed in the 21st century, Canadians have to marry high-calibre technical and human proficiencies. For instance, the best coders need to not just be excellent at software programming, they also need to be able to work together in teams. If an employee is toxic to a workplace culture, then that individual will likely have a far more negative than positive impact, regardless of that individual's intelligence or technical proficiency.

Therefore, while technical abilities are important to thriving in a 21st-century economy, there needs to also be a national focus on developing essential human skills in all Canadians.

How do we develop a Canadian work force that has both the human skills and the technical skills needed to thrive in a world that is rapidly changing?

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More academic institutions should consider incorporating course work relevant to the development of human skills, such as emotional intelligence and public speaking. This should extend across all disciplines, including the humanities, business, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). More emphasis should be placed on supporting work-integrated learning, which provides students with real-world learning opportunities, allowing Canadians to gain a better understanding of themselves as well as others.

In my role at Venture for Canada, an organization that recruits and trains Canadian youth to work at Canadian startups, we see firsthand the transformative impact that real-world work experience has on developing essential skills among young Canadians.

Understanding people, including ourselves, is one of the most challenging aspects of life. As our world becomes even more complex and the structure of work evolves significantly, Canadians must focus more than ever on sharpening these human talents.

The sooner we embrace uniting human skills with the technical, the sooner all Canadians will be empowered to prosper in our rapidly changing 21st-century economy.

Scott Stirrett is founder and executive director of Venture for Canada, a not-for-profit organization that connects top Canadian university graduates to work at startups.

Karl Moore sits down with Cornell’s Chris Marquis to discuss how the economy and environment interact in China Special to Globe and Mail Update
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