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Understanding the Future of Skills: Trends and Global Policy Responses

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Studies on the future of work tend to focus on the jobs at risk of automation, with projections varying widely from 6% to 59%. Sunil Johal and Michael Urban take a different approach in reviewing eight expert reports and the actions taken by nine countries to prepare for the challenges ahead. They distill key lessons for Canada to ensure workers are equipped with the skills they need to thrive in tomorrow’s economy, whatever shape it takes.

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Key Takeaways

In our first report in Skills Next, we look at top research and skills training programs that are succeeding internationally, and highlight for Canadian policymakers key features driving success. The future of work will disrupt traditional labour employer-worker relations in five distinct ways. So by looking at skills training programs around the globe, what can be learned about developing digital tools for citizens, building innovation hubs, effective public-private partnerships, responsible public spending, and legal reforms that policymakers can use at home?


Studies on the future of work tend to focus on the jobs at risk of automation, with projections varying widely from 6% to 59%. To get clearer answers, we may need to take new approaches to research.


Australia, Brazil, Denmark, France, Singapore, the UK and the US are all taking innovative steps towards enhancing, and in some cases rethinking, skills training for the future of work.

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Executive Summary

The future of skills has become a subject of global debate. So far, most of the attention from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the World Economic Forum (WEF), major management consulting firms, think tanks and banks has fallen onto reports warning about occupations most at risk of automation, the number of jobs that will be lost, and the skills and occupations likely to be immune from obsolescence.

But what if that focus is misplaced?

The inherent unpredictability of technological progress means that within the growing literature, one report projects 59% of jobs to be at high risk from automation, while another predicts 6%. And the timeframes within which these impacts are predicted to occur are similarly broad, ranging from 10 to 50 years.

Taking a different approach, this paper looks at initiatives in nine countries, highlights key projections from eight of the most important reports to date on the skills of the future, and distills the effects of drivers of skills change into five key impacts that will influence the direction and form of the future of skills, and the future of work, namely:

  1. A decline in routine work;
  2. An unbundling of tasks;
  3. A greater need for adaptability and resilience on the part of workers;
  4. A premium on workers’ ability to work with technology; and
  5. An increased emphasis on hard-to-automate skills.
    In so doing, this paper analyzes the relationship between projections and examines how the methods used to create these projections have evolved and built upon each other.

This elevated perspective is followed by a more in-depth discussion of one interesting initiative that is already underway in one of the selected countries. The goal is to understand what drives success in skills training initiatives along seven key dimensions of analysis, including labour market information, active labour market programs, special initiatives and legal reforms.

Canada, and countries around the world, are positioning themselves to adapt to the future of work. This set of global comparisons aims to inform Canada’s approach to the future of work and skills, which is outlined in the final section of this report. With this information, the Future Skills Centre and policymakers can better grasp opportunities to help Canadians equip themselves with the skills they will need to thrive in the future of work.

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For More Information

Contact: Eglantine Ronfard – Communications Manager


Sunil Johal

Fellow, Public Policy Forum

Sunil Johal

Sunil serves as a Fellow to the Public Policy Forum and the Brookfield Institute. From 2012 to 2019 he was Policy Director at the University of Toronto’s Mowat Centre. In 2019, he was named Chair of the Expert Panel on Modern Labour Standards by the federal Minister of Labour. He has contributed expert commentary and advice to organizations and media outlets such as the G-20, World Economic Forum, Brookings Institution, Globe and Mail, Washington Post, Guardian and OECD.  He holds degrees from LSE, Osgoode Hall Law School and the University of Western Ontario.

Michael Crawford Urban

Associate Director, Partnership Development and Stewardship for Future Skills, at Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute

Michael Urban

Michael is Research Manager – Future Skills at the Ted Rogers School of Management’s Diversity Institute at Ryerson University. He is also a Fellow of the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History at the University of Toronto and a Rhodes Scholar. Previously, Michael was Practice Lead for Government Transformation at the Mowat Centre and has also worked as a Returning Officer for Elections Canada and with Global Affairs Canada, most recently as a Cadieux-Léger Fellow. Michael is often asked to speak about his research on disruptive technologies and regulatory issues, and his research and analysis on these and other subjects have appeared in a variety of academic and popular publications. Michael holds degrees from Balliol College at the University of Oxford, the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, and Queen’s University.

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