Outlook: Skilled Canadians will lead the country on the road to recovery

As we welcome this new year full of opportunity and hope, I’d like to suggest a few resolutions.

One, let’s leave the term, “in these unprecedented times” in 2020. The year was rough, but we learned to pivot, adapt and grow, despite unbelievable challenges. Now it’s time to move forward.

Two, let’s also ban “new normal” from our vocabulary in 2021. The reality of this decade is that technology moves fast, global pandemics move faster, and we’re not slowing down anytime soon. Everything is new. That is the norm.

Three, the most important takeaway from last year is that we are a resilient species. For all the job loss, business closures, loneliness and heartbreak, we also learned that people can do incredible things if they are committed and given the chance. This should be our mantra for 2021 – it is our path to recovery.

That’s why the Restart, Recover, and Reimagine Prosperity for all Canadians report recently released by the Industry Strategy Council is so critically important and right for our times.

The council, a blue-ribbon panel of top industry leaders, sets out to reimage Canada’s future by sharing a vision for a digital, sustainable and innovative economy for all Canadians.

According to the council, we need to “attract and incentivize investment, [and] to equip people with the knowledge they need for new and value-added jobs.”

While that might seem like a political talking point, I believe that we can make this a reality.

Take the tech sector to start. Many wrongly believe that the knowledge economy is all about jobs for coders and system analysts. According to CBRE data, approximately 73% of tech jobs require business skills, not technical (coding) skills. These are jobs more accessible to a broad cross-section of Canadians than many realize.

Many industry sectors are rapidly changing. Manufacturing is becoming advanced manufacturing. Agriculture is adopting agri-tech solutions. This economic transformation was happening before the pandemic; COVID accelerated the process. And, despite immense job loss in 2020, these transformations are creating immediate and long-term talent shortages across many sectors, including supply chain, health care, cybersecurity, agriculture and manufacturing.

A recent Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters survey found that 80% of respondents identified immediate labour and skills shortages – a proportion driven up by the pandemic from 70% in 2018 and 40% in 2016.

All this calls for the right type of reskilling strategy, one that sees industry as an essential partner.

Yet, according to the Industry Strategy Council’s report, “Canada continues to lag behind other [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] countries in upskilling its existing workforce. For example, Canadian organizations spend an average of 81 cents for every dollar spent by American organizations on learning and development.”

Canada can recover from the pandemic only when more Canadians can participate in economic expansion.

We have the talent, but organizations need to work together to ensure that people have the foundation and skills to succeed in building the economy.

That’s why non-profit organizations like Palette Skills are so essential today. At Palette, we work with private-sector employers, higher-education institutions and government agencies to train the talent that Canada needs to grow.

We measure our success by how many unemployed or underemployed Canadians move into full-time jobs in growing industries and by how my companies land amazing new employees to help their businesses grow.

In the last six months alone, we’ve helped transition dozens of Canadian professionals, many who had not worked since March, into new, well-paying, full-time jobs thanks to our innovative reskilling programs.

Our participants were bartenders that lost their jobs when restaurants shut, others were clerks working at border duty-free shops – few had ever imagined a career in the technology sector. Today, they and many others like them have fulfilling roles with growth opportunities and long-term stability for themselves and their families.

And we’re just getting started. We are growing and scaling. We are seeking to build more relationships with employers, associations, education institutions and government agencies, so that we can help even more Canadians achieve their career goals. And, just as importantly, we are providing a new pipeline of talent that is helping Canadian companies grow and compete globally.

Canada’s recovery means reimagining the future as one filled with innovation and prosperity for all Canadians. It’s a future where we support each other and always remember that our people can do incredible things if they are given the chance. And what could be more Canadian than that? •

Arvind Gupta is CEO of national not-for-profit Palette Skills and a professor at the University of Toronto’s department of computer science.