The race for tech talent is on, and it’s global. We’re seeing that tightening demographics, international mobility, and virtual work are fueling an already competitive battle to attract skilled tech workers. Canada seems well placed when it comes to talent acquisition, particularly in innovation. We have one of the most highly skilled and educated workforces in the world, and rank second from the top when it comes to the number of workers with a tertiary—or post-secondary degree.
But while Canada is out in front with a capable, educated workforce, we know that firms struggle to recruit great talent. Many in the tech space—including us at national nonprofit Palette Skills—believe that a traditionally educated workforce alone won’t solve the talent crunch facing the country. The question is how to better leverage our existing talent, and connect it with the demands of the future economy.
As the Chief Strategy Officer and cofounder of Palette Skills, I tell people we need to make sure we are helping individuals—especially those from traditionally underrepresented groups—achieve their highest potential. When we get this right, we also help Canada’s highest growth firms access the talent they need to grow. There have to be better pathways connecting skilled workers to new jobs, thereby ensuring we are utilizing the talented workforce we already have. We’ve recently released a comprehensive white paper that looks at how Canada can leverage its skilled workforce to build a more inclusive economy.
Creating a Thriving Economy
I helped found Palette Skills because I have a vision of Canada where people and business thrive as the result of a globally competitive—and inclusive—economy. And in my experience, it’s a motivation shared by industry leaders, academics, and policymakers.
Within our ecosystem of industry and academic partners, a key starting point is understanding that economic disruption can create innovation and growth, but can also mean chaos and instability. The risk is that economic gains in growing sectors of the economy like tech are not felt equally among all population groups. We know that too many racialized Canadians, newcomers, Indigenous peoples, women, and mid-career workers are being left out of the recovery. The result is chronically higher unemployment among Canadians who most need to get ahead.
The challenge is to find better ways to future-proof Canadian business and workers. We need to create systems and structures capable of rapidly redeploying talent across sectors as demand for talent shifts. Solving this issue is important for an inclusive and productive Canadian economy, which is already impacted by disruption from automation, recession, and the global pandemic.
Empowering the Future Workforce through Connected Upskilling
Palette Skills took shape because we wanted to help Canadians facing employment dislocation as a result of automation, and help close Canada’s digital skills gap by leveraging overlooked talent. So in consultation with our academic and employer partners, we developed a model of upskilling based on careful research.
The result was an upskilling program called SalesCamp, an intensive bootcamp to get Canadians with sales skills ready for the booming business-to-business (B2B) tech sales sector. The program was co-designed with employers, and targeted workers wanting to build professional careers, even if they lacked a tech background. Palette Skills next launched an accelerated cybersecurity program designed for people with underused quantitative analysis backgrounds.
Most recently, we’ve unveiled the Automation and Digital Agriculture Specialist program in partnership with the University of Saskatchewan. The 8-week program builds skills in automation and digitization technologies in agricultural production and processing. The goal is to give workers the tools to identify, manage, and implement agtech solutions across the agri-food value chain.
Unleashing the Power of Diversity for Business Growth
The results of these and other upskilling initiatives are encouraging. As our white paper makes clear, industry-led upskilling works, not only because such programs are responsive to employer needs, but also because they make a diverse pipeline of talent available for innovative Canadian companies in growth.
Palette Skills’ upskilling programs, for example, consistently generate close to a 90% job placement rate for workers, compared to traditional training programs that range between 50-75%. In turn, this record of success helps build diversity in Canada’s tech sector, with data showing that 70% of Palette Skills participants identify as part of an equity-deserving group, 55% as newcomers to Canada, and 44% identifying as women.
Too often, industry and policymakers tend to see growth and competitiveness in opposition to equity and diversity. I am passionate about equity, and I believe strongly that equity and competitiveness should be seen as complementary parts of a continuous loop, where the strength of one feeds the development of the other.
Realizing Untapped Potential through Visionary Leadership
Foundational research by the team at Palette Skills shows that, too often, individuals attempting to transition into jobs in new sectors struggle to have their past experiences and skills recognized. So a key ingredient to upskilling has to be potential-focused recruitment. Admissions to our upskilling programs, for example, evaluate a candidate’s potential to succeed in the field, and are not simply based on previous accomplishments. This helps the program connect to untapped labour markets while avoiding replicating existing barriers. Additionally, the active participation of employer partners in upskilling gives hiring managers the chance to interact with participants, and watch how they learn and respond.
On a broader level, our white paper highlights how the capacity of Canadian society to maintain social cohesion will hinge on whether ordinary Canadians can benefit from economic gains brought by the changing economy. Palette Skills and its partners in the upskilling ecosystem are advocating a national system of upskilling and job transition support, one that’s focused on enabling individuals and employers to thrive in a new, and inclusive economy.
AJ Tibando is the CoFounder and Chief Strategy Officer of Palette Skills, a national nonprofit focused on meeting the needs of Canada’s most innovative companies by upskilling workers from diverse backgrounds to transition into new industries.