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‘Future-proofing’ skills through polytechnic education

The Globe and Mail Report on Business by Nobina Robinson 26 January 2017

For the foreseeable future, Canada will face sluggish growth, declines in job quality, and considerable gaps in both productivity and infrastructure. This bleak scene is the result of a confluence of several factors – demographic shifts, under-investment by business in equipment and training, and a global economy that has yet to fully recover from the 2008 financial crisis. Add to this, new threats such as automation that have the potential to disrupt employment further.

Canada faces major skills challenges that add complexity to our economic challenges. Skills mismatches persist across regions and industries, young people are working jobs poorly aligned with their backgrounds, and workers are being displaced as once dominant industries decline. The result is high regional unemployment, poor employee and employer satisfaction, and a youth underemployment rate estimated to be nearly 30 per cent.

Sounds scary, doesn’t it? What to do? While nobody has a functioning crystal ball, this doesn’t mean we are helpless. For students about to enter the workforce, and people already in the workforce, but facing a need to upgrade their skills to make a job shift, there are “fixes” the government can encourage to “future-proof” their work prospects – to foster more resilience in the face of constant change and uncertainty in the world of work.

Know what’s ahead

Canada must develop, aggregate, and disseminate data on both the skills that are in-demand today, but also those that will be in demand tomorrow. Forward-looking analysis allows learners to better align their education with labour market needs, and allows employers and governments to better allocate resources to training. Other jurisdictions across the globe are already at the forefront of this kind of data collection and reporting. Take, for example, the “Australian Jobs” report. This annual publication presents detailed regional labour market information and assists readers in understanding where jobs will be in the future. We must do this here.

Be nimble

Whether it is a result of automation, climate change, or emerging technologies, we know that some industries will see extensive worker displacement. Further, the newest word to come into vogue is “job churn.” Young people face a labour market of short-term, contract jobs and a dominance of part-time employment. To ensure that displaced workers are able to re-skill and re-attach to the labour market, focused supports and strong collaboration between industry, government, and post-secondary institutions are essential. Nimbleness means not only being able to train Canada’s workforce of the future, but re-training Canada’s existing workforce for the future. This includes inculcating soft skills that can be developed in part through work-integrated learning opportunities. So a piece of the puzzle lies in better support for all forms of work-integrated learning across all post-secondary institutions.

Fill the gaps

The federal government is fast making plans to invest in infrastructure upgrades, innovation and training. At the same time, the skilled trades, those who are set to build Canada’s new roads, highways and public infrastructure, suffer demographic deficits. For example, the average age of a bricklayer in Ontario is 74. Retirement of certified trades professionals is no longer a looming issue; it is here. It is essential that we dedicate resources not just to the knowledge economy, but also to the “know-how economy.” Failure to invest in attracting, retaining, and certifying apprentices today will result in skills deficits tomorrow.

Future-proofing careers through polytechnic education

In an economy characterized by precarious work, job churn, and disruption, a polytechnic education goes a good way to addressing the three points above. It provides both the knowledge and know-how that will allow individuals to develop in-demand skills, and to be nimble in their careers. And because everything polytechnics do is driven by labour market demand, and done in concert with industry, our eyes are always on the future.

The workforce is shifting rapidly, but that’s alright, because polytechnics are shifting too. We know where the jobs will be and what skills will be necessary to fill those jobs, because our industry partners and clients tell us so. Our programs and courses are designed with industry leaders to ensure that the graduates obtain the skills demanded today and in the future.

The applied focus provides learners hands-on experience that makes for easy transitions from classroom to work. Delivering bachelor’s degrees in an applied environment means polytechnics produce students with not only deep theoretical knowledge, but with practical skills that allow them to make an immediate impact on the firms that hire them. Applied research projects, conducted for and with businesses, build innovation skills that help advance student ingenuity and firm-level commercialization.

For those with a university bachelor’s degree, post-baccalaureate degrees and graduate certificates from polytechnics provide bachelor’s students relevant hands-on experience in their fields and act as a direct pipeline to their chosen field of specialization.

For those in the trades, polytechnic training means Canada will be ready to deliver its infrastructure and innovation needs, while at the same time filling a desperate demographic gap as our current trades people retire.

So, what does future-proofing Canada really entail? It means harnessing our resiliency and resourcefulness to create adaptable workers for tomorrow’s economy – workers who have truly future-forward skill sets. Through their nimbleness, close relationship with industry, applied nature, and dedication to the skilled trades, polytechnics are a key asset for building tomorrow’s workforce, today.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

Nobina Robinson is chief executive officer of Polytechnics Canada.