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Canada needs a bolder approach to skills training

With labour unrest back in the headlines, it is reassuring to know there is at least one thing on which workers and bosses can agree: skills. In particular, both sides are on the same page when it comes to the type of skills needed to succeed in today’s economy.

Every year the country’s largest companies are asked which skills they are seeking when they hire new employees. And every year, the message is the same. Despite the need to fill jobs that require specialist knowledge⁠—like nurses, computer programmers, or skilled tradespeople⁠—the skills most in demand are those that apply to almost every type of job: communication skills; the ability to get along with and collaborate with other people; and a knack for analyzing and solving complex problems.

What’s striking is that the answer from our survey on employment and skills, is more or less the same. When we asked workers in Canada about which skills were most important for them in landing their current job, the top answers were the ability to solve problems; communication skills; the ability to collaborate with others and work in teams; and the capacity to adapt quickly to change by learning new skills. This slate outranked job-specific know-how, as well as things like digital skills or being good with numbers.

Two of these same types of skills⁠—communication skills, and ability to adapt quickly to change⁠—are also on the list that workers in Canada say are most important for them to be successful in their careers in the future. 

When it comes to the types of skills we need to teach and learn, employers and employees in Canada are therefore heading in the same direction. But how exactly are these skills acquired? And how are they updated over the course of a career?

Our survey’s answers to these questions are less reassuring. Only one in three Canadians in the labour force had participated in a training course provided by their employer in the past two years. Two in five had accessed training either provided by their employer or pursued on their own⁠—leaving a majority with no formal skills upgrading in the past two years. Access to skills training declines with age, meaning that we are much better at onboarding new workers than we are at refreshing the skills of established workers as they move into more challenging phases of their careers.

For those who access training, it is unclear how focused that is on strengthening those skills most in demand (such as communication, collaboration, and problem solving). Over the past two years, 40% of the skills training received has focused on adapting to the changes in the workplace caused by the pandemic. This is vital for workplace safety, but leaves less time for other forms of upskilling that address the economy’s longer-term needs. More detailed descriptions of skills training experiences point to a wide array of topics covered⁠—such as first aid training, or learning to use new machinery or software⁠—but little evidence of a more strategic approach to training designed to strengthen teamwork, leadership, and problem-solving.

Admittedly, these skills may be harder to teach. It is perhaps no surprise that workers told us that their preferred way of acquiring new skills was not to take training courses at all, but to learn directly from their co-workers on the job. This speaks well of camaraderie in the workplace. But it raises the question of whether Canadian employers are too passive in their approach to promoting the type of cross-cutting skills that they themselves identify as essential.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been disruptive, but in the end it provides no excuse. Only one in five workers who did not access training in the past two years say it was because the pandemic made it too difficult. Many more said they did not see the need, while others said training costs too much or takes too much time. And most of those who had taken a skills training course in the past two years received at least part of their instruction remotely⁠—showing that training delivery can adapt to new realities.

The next step, then, is to move beyond the agreement that a more collaborative, critically minded, and adaptable workforce is essential for the country’s future, and build consensus on how to provide more workers, at more stages of their careers, with skills training opportunities aligned with this task. Employers in particular should take steps to propel us forward from a situation where most of their employees are missing out, to one where most are opting in.

Moving forward, we need to start focusing on:

  • taking a sectoral perspective⁠—as the COVID-19 pandemic has affected each industry in different ways, training solutions need to be tailored to the needs of each sector.
  • equity-seeking groups⁠—the pandemic has widened disparities in education, employment, and income across various demographic groups that existed even prior to the pandemic. We need to focus our attention on equity-seeking groups to ensure that they do not get left behind as our economy recovers.
  • digital skills⁠—the pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation of many industries, and we need to ensure that Canadians have the necessary digital skills to keep up with this change.
  • career advice and guidance⁠—accessibility, inclusion, and awareness of services and better labour market insights are needed so that Canadians can build career skills. 

The impacts of the pandemic on a labour market that was already undergoing significant transformation necessitate a more strategic and intentional approach to skills training that involves employers, employees, jobseekers, and the broader skills training ecosystem. As the Canadian labour market prepares for a post-pandemic environment, ensuring tailored, equitable, and relevant skills training opportunities has never been more important. 

Pedro Barata is the executive director of the Future Skills Centre (FSC). Wendy Cukier is the founder and academic director of the Ted Rogers School of Management’s Diversity Institute and academic research lead for FSC. Andrew Parkin is the executive director of the Environics Institute for Survey Research.

The views, thoughts and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint, official policy or position of the Future Skills Centre or any of its staff members or consortium partners.