Human Skills, Digital Literacy Critical to Surviving Workforce Automation

Empowering people to control change requires new tactics from business, government, education system
March 29, 2018 Updated: March 29, 2018


What makes us human will best ensure our survival in an era of jobs automation—but our education system also needs to teach skills instead of theory. These are conclusions from current research in Canada on what is being called the “fourth industrial revolution” after the steam engine, electricity, and electronics.

A large generation of young people is coming into the workforce at a time when technology and artificial intelligence are disrupting jobs. The demographics in Canada and many of the advanced economies are problematic with the proportion of retirees growing and being supported by a smaller workforce. Productivity becomes critical to get the most out of the changing workforce.

The name of the game is skills development, not just getting degrees. The problem the economy faces is graduates overqualified for the jobs they’re in and underemployed youth poorly trained for the positions that are unfilled.

RBC’s report “Humans Wanted: How Canadian youth can thrive in the age of disruption” states that over a quarter of Canadian jobs will be heavily disrupted by technology in the next 10 years and half will go through a significant overhaul of the skills required.

The report says that Canada’s education system and training programs are not adequately helping Canada’s youth navigate the new skills economy. Canada is facing a quiet crisis, according to RBC.

“We sense the change around us,” said RBC CEO Dave McKay at an RBC Disruptors event in Toronto on March 28. “We’re not sure what it means to us—probably equivalent to the advent of electricity,” he added, referring to how that discovery changed business models and the interaction among workers.

The lessons from the research are that workers will need a high degree of job mobility, analytical and social skills, and of course, they must be digitally literate. Skills like critical thinking, social perception, and complex problem solving prepare people to pivot between careers.

McKay said that there will be less vertical development of workers within an organization and more horizontal development as workers branch out with different skill sets, possibly across different industries.

Another key message from RBC is the importance of empowering people to take control of change by augmenting their skill sets. This way the fear of change dissipates, as change is no longer in control.

But the leader of one of Canada’s big banks is enthusiastic about the “incredibly exciting period” ahead for Canada and the rest of the world. “We’re going to create so many new jobs,” McKay said.

Epoch Times Photo
Students walk on campus at Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C. RBC advocates for 100 percent work-integrated learning. Gone are the days where universities can purely focus on theory. (The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck)

The big Canadian bank recommends 100 percent work-integrated learning. Gone are the days where classroom theory is sufficient. Co-op placements and internships must be the norm, not the exception.

The research also singled out the role government has to play in partnering with the private sector and educational institutions.

Canada, in its G7 Presidency for 2018, hosted a two-day meeting March 27–28 in Montreal on preparing for jobs of the future. G7 nation governments are to take an active role in preparing companies to be part of the digital economy.

The Liberal government said in its latest budget that it would launch a Future Skills Lab—a new organization tasked to identify and develop the skills sought by employers. It will also undertake a horizontal review of skills support programs, including training and financial support.

Breaking It Down

RBC grouped the Canadian economy into six clusters based on essential skill sets. By likelihood of technological disruption, they range from “crafters,” a cluster that includes tailors, painters, and truck drivers, which faces a very high chance of disruption, to “solvers” and “providers,” clusters that include software engineers, architects, and content creators, which have a minimal chance of disruption.

According to RBC, in three years, about 45 percent of Canadians will belong to the solvers and providers clusters. Labour demand will be weakest for the “facilitators” cluster, which includes payroll clerks and customer service reps.

Not surprisingly, the average annual income of jobs least likely to be affected by automation is significantly higher than those at medium or high risk of being disrupted. Analysis from the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship shows it’s nearly double—$62,000 (at low risk of being disrupted) compared to $36,300 (at medium risk), and $33,400 (at high risk).

“There is a lower risk for automation in areas like stakeholder interaction / relations management, human interaction / services, education,” according to the Canadian Chamber of Commerce report “Skills for an Automated Future.”

The most vulnerable tasks involve repetitive, predictable work. Less vulnerable to disruption is work requiring the application of expertise, management, and unpredictable physical work.

Entrepreneurship as a Solution

The RBC report was critical of universities for being “degree factories, where instructors focus on content knowledge, rather than skills development.”

The Chamber advocates a more diverse mixture of preparedness, which includes university and college programs supplemented with “micro-credentials and badges” for more specific on-the-job training.

Universities are adapting and have been offering entrepreneurship programs where hardly any existed 15 years ago. These programs focus on teaching the skills and mindset needed to succeed in a world of rapid technological advances and empowering students to understand how to run a company.

Jad Slim, a student at the University of Ottawa, was part of a trio that won a Startup Weekend competition in Ottawa last November.

“Eventually everything is going to be automated and having your own startup is the way to go forward,” he said.

And it’s not just about turning everybody into coders; the research consistently suggests that human skills are just as important. Communication, creative and critical thinking, and personal and social skills are very much in demand and are obviously harder to automate.

History has shown that job creation through automation surpassed job losses due to automation. The Chamber heard of a similar dynamic now taking shape during one of its roundtables. Jobs that have been in existence for decades are to be replaced by jobs that haven’t even been invented yet or that have recently been invented such as social media managers.

“We have to get into a more dynamic skills-based mode,” McKay said. “What we did to make us great today isn’t necessarily going to make us great tomorrow.”

Follow Rahul on Twitter @RV_ETBiz

Follow Rahul on Twitter: @RV_ETBiz