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Digital Skills and the Skills Gap

For more than 20 years, industry has been decrying the skills gap and the need for digital skills. The problem of the so-called “digital skills gap” is a global phenomenon; however, there is little doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation of many industries as products and services shifted online and working from home became more common. KPMG claims that 80% of businesses say they need more workers with digital skills, yet two-thirds are having trouble finding and hiring the right talent. Of Canadian CEOs, 79% say that the pandemic has changed how they work and that more employees with IT skills are required. The most recent assessments of the information and communications technology (ICT) workforce suggest there are now more digital jobs outside the ICT sector—which is comprised of companies that make and sell hardware, software, services and networks—than within it. Retail, manufacturing, financial institutions, governments, non-profits, agriculture and resources are all intensifying their use of digital technologies.

Despite the claims of skills shortages, there is evidence that many segments of the population remain under-employed in the sector. The under-representation of women has persisted for decades, however, there is also evidence of a leaky pipeline; the women who work in ICT jobs are leaving. Internationally educated professionals— who are often racialized—as well as Indigenous Peoples and some racialized people, including those who are Black, are particularly under-represented. The digital divide is not just a function of geography or access to infrastructure, but is also about the skills needed to access and use the technology.

Digital skills are often seen as synonymous with computer science and engineering, with a focus on coding and the skills to develop technology; however, digital skills extend far beyond the development and provision of hardware, software and associated services. Some of the most significant gaps are for people who understand how to match the technology to organizational needs and support its adoption.

While many employers are advocating for increasing the pipeline and encouraging younger students to embrace technology skills in order to increase the proportion of post-secondary graduates with relevant credentials, other employers have begun to question the value of traditional post-secondary credentials, arguing for stronger and more current competency frameworks and alternative, more responsive pathways instead. Typically, post-secondary institutions are slow to adapt. While immigrants and racialized people are over represented in the sector, there is evidence that they face barriers in gaining access to the workplace and are often under-utilized.

Canada scored high on levels of skilled youth and the use of digital skills in people’s daily lives in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’s 2019 Digital Readiness review; however, the country continues to rank in the middle as an average performer with respect to leveraging innovation to stimulate skills use. Our overall innovation and productivity scores remain far behind, suggesting that we risk losing more ground if we do not address the need for digital skills in innovative ways.

So, what are the barriers to planning and training for the digital economy? How do we ensure that Canada is taking the right, evidence-based steps to building a digitally enabled society and a strong ICT talent pool for tomorrow that is inclusive of all the nation’s talent? This report captures important insights in the digital skills debate and aims to contribute to it by reviewing definitions of ICT skills, digital skills and the skills gap, as well as evaluating evidence of worker shortages and tracing the participation and advancement of diverse groups in the ICT sector.

Key findings

The most recent assessments of the information and communications technology (ICT) workforce suggest there are now more digital jobs outside the ICT sector—which is comprised of companies that make and sell hardware, software, services and networks—than within it.

While many employers are advocating for increasing the pipeline and encouraging younger students to embrace technology skills in order to increase the proportion of post-secondary graduates with relevant credentials, other employers have begun to question the value of traditional post-secondary credentials, arguing for stronger and more current competency frameworks and alternative, more responsive pathways instead.

Despite the claims of skills shortages, there is evidence that many segments of the population remain under-employed in the sector. The under-representation of women has persisted for decades, however, there is also evidence of a leaky pipeline; the women who work in ICT jobs are leaving.

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