Skill them all: Here’s how to gear up for the future of work

C2 team

Today’s leaders agree that the workforce of tomorrow, above all else, needs to be agile. As cycles of disruption interrupt enterprises every five to 10 years now (instead of once per generation), The Honourable Navdeep Singh Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development of Canada, thinks economic success will be about creating a culture of “learning how to learn continuously.”

This is not a one-time thing, he cautions, “but a continuous change that’s more rapid, intense and acute. You need people who have the mindset that they will have 10 or 15 careers over the course of their lives and so upgrade their skills every few months.”

Big data, big money

A recent PwC report found that global GDP is poised to be 14% higher in 2030 as a result of AI. In other words, an equivalent gain of $15.7 trillion is on the horizon. Minister Bains says policymakers must act now “to make sure that Canada gets a slice of the pie.”


The economic benefits of lifelong learning

Minister Bains believes that the anxiety that exists about automation and rapid advances in machine learning and other tech have much to do with trust.

“People want to know if their jobs will be displaced, if they will have the skills and what is the economic opportunity,” he says. He highlights the need for governments and policymakers to create grant programs and interest-free loans to help workers gain the new skills required for the digital industrial revolution.

But it’s not like they have much of a choice, really. The demand for digital skills increasingly underlies all areas of occupation growth across economies. The Brookings Institution recently produced a report indicating that, in America, 62% of net new jobs since 2010 have required a medium or high level of digital skills.

“That’s happening in two ways,” explains Sean Mullin of the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship. “[Companies] are hiring people with more coding and programming skills, and the other side is that the digital components of existing jobs has increased.”

The reskilling revolution

On the heels of reports that an estimated 1.4 million U.S. jobs are expected to be disrupted by 2026 (with the majority — 57% — belonging to women), the World Economic Forum announced a project called Closing the Skills Gap, which provides a platform for public and private sector leaders to work together on education reform. They have a 10-million-person target.

If jobs are now getting digitally disrupted in five- or 10-year time windows, he says, “you are taking people out mid-career and you have to make sure that they remain employable and pick up digital skills that they didn’t take when they were going through school — that’s a very different challenge.”

“From a societal perspective, we really have to get our heads around this: our employers, the individual responsibility of workers, educational institutions and policy… we have to create a system of lifelong education.”

Element AI Co-Founder and Director of the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms, Prof. Yoshua Bengio, agrees. “We’re going to have to rethink our social safety net and our education system to be able to retrain citizens, regardless of their age,” he posits.


Open-door policies

The second way that Canada has differentiated itself for the future of work is in immigration policies that “match people without jobs and jobs without people.”

“If you are a company in the AI space, for example, and want to scale but need talent, you can bring an individual to Canada in a matter of two weeks,” he explains. “Compare that to other jurisdictions that might be building walls while we are opening doors. [Our global skills strategy] allows us to play off our strengths and leverage diversity.”

He thinks this is what helps Canada stay competitive as a go-to place for talent in the global AI ecosystem.

A few words on the technological talent pool  

According to Jean-François Gagné, Co-Founder and CEO of Element AI, their company employs 320 people from 23 countries, and who speak 29 different languages. Their ability to hire the people needed to develop algorithms, software and databases rests on industry-wide alignment and Canada’s immigration programs. The lesson? Cities, countries and companies must be attractive places to do business and must be able to draw talent from elsewhere quickly.

But the flipside to this is the brain drain that occurs, from startups and academia to big tech companies specifically. “Top AI researchers and faculty members are getting poached by big companies, and that’s a problem if their knowledge doesn’t feed back into academia,” says to NYU Tandon Future Labs Managing Partner Steven Kuyan. Prof. Bengio agrees: “We need to preserve researchers’ neutrality. We are far from having solved every question pertaining to AI.”


The future of work must be for the many

Politicians are also turning to history to apply lessons learned from globalization and free-trade agreements (i.e., advances have to benefit the majority or there is going to be pushback (the rise of populism and anti-tech/anti-automation attitudes, for example).

Many caution that an unequal AI rollout would divide society and there is a risk of socio-economic polarization – between those who have the technology and the knowledge and those who don’t – and geographic polarization.

Politicians agree that Canada needs to do a better job of engaging the 20% of our population in rural and remote communities. “We can’t afford to have indigenous communities or women fall further behind,” says Minister Bains. “Only 20% of our STEM jobs are held by women. We must be more thoughtful about how we engage in tech adoption.”


Read more from the “Back to business” special:

Does your company really need AI? Ask yourself these 3 questions

Train your brain to spot the next big industry shift

6 steps to get your business walking the diversity talk

Your audience is cooler than you

What’s your problem? 3 easy steps for creative business problem solving


The C2 Montréal Minutes: Actionable insights for creative business leaders

This article is excerpted from the upcoming Transformative Collisions: The C2 Montréal 2018 Minutes, available for your reading pleasure this fall at

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