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Workforce development, preparedness a must for post-COVID economy

Digital talent will be Canada’s most critical competitive advantage


(yingyaipumi/Adobe Stock)

Despite early signs that the COVID-19 pandemic has potentially passed through its most critical phase, the impact in Canada — on many industry verticals and especially on small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) — has been nothing short of dire.

Many sectors are now navigating the prospects of shrinking consumer demand, dwindling supply chains, reduced revenues and an overly indebted financial landscape.

Business continuity, financial sustenance and operational resiliency are much-debated topics for many of these firms.

With global output projections shifting rapidly and frequently, our current economic situation remains in a state of flux. Uncertainty about the broad and lasting impacts of the health crisis continue to fuel volatility in the global financial markets and upend corporate decision making.

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Larger questions about the efficacy and preparedness of educational institutions, public transportation, health systems, and trade and transportation networks will come to light — as will our ability to shape sustainable communities and a truly ecofriendly future.

All of this also comes at the start of a new decade that is expected to bring greater socio-economic changes than those experienced in the last 50 years due to climate change, technological disruption, urbanization, evolving trade dynamics and demographic shifts — among many others.

Digital services critical

One thing, however, is certain: the preponderance of digital-enabled services will be an ever more critical aspect of our business and private lives in the future.

Digital transformation is now becoming a critical prerequisite for many industry verticals for weathering the storm, or even thriving in this new normal.

Increased adoption of cloud computing, advancements in data analytics, and machine learning are now considered vital to unlocking greater efficiencies and boosting productivity across business lines.

Today’s advances in artificial intelligence and deep learning are engendering greater strides in real-life applications, ranging from enhanced analysis of soil nutrients leading to better crop yield, to fast-tracking clinical trials that are markedly improving the economics and timeliness of medical drug discoveries.

Global markets are also increasingly being reshaped by the advent of the Internet of Things (IoT), 5G wireless deployment, blockchain, and the rise of the data economy.

Harnessing the full potential of these technologies will address the many global endeavours in energy production, carbon emissions, food supply, clean water and disease eradication.

Transformed jobs market

This evolving digital era will, however, create entirely new jobs with different skills and competencies, and while some jobs will be displaced, many others will be created.

The crucial success factor in this changing economy will hinge on our ability as a nation to continually upskill the workforce to meet the needs of tomorrow’s labour market. The strength and agility of our academic institutions will play a vital role in allowing our economy to adjust to the evolving nature of work.

Our recently published labour market Outlook 2022, The Digital-Led New Normal, points to a resilient digital-based economy, despite the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Between February and June 2020, the overall Canadian economy faced stark realities, with total unemployment notching up to 11 per cent, but the digital economy continued to employ Canadians and is expected to employ over 2 million workers by 2022.

The future of work in this increasingly digital world holds greater promise in the coming years. It will require an evolving confluence of skills and competencies that include technical, soft, creativity, learnability, and an entrepreneurial mindset.

Digital talent is, and will remain, Canada’s most critical competitive advantage in a global economy.

The shaping of this new talent pool will continue to require exceptional policy interventions on many fronts, including:

  • nurturing a strong youth pipeline in K-12 and post-secondary educations, aligned with industry needs
  • fostering workforce reskilling and upskilling opportunities to respond to a changing economy and to accelerate digital adoption
  • leveraging Canada’s diverse talent and ensuring the broadest participation of underrepresented populations in the Canada labour market
  • attracting and retaining high-skilled global talent to accelerate innovation and competitiveness
  • strengthening digital literacy for Canadians to improve the knowledge, fluency and adoption of a digital-first economy.

Forecasting the course of this pandemic is far from certain, however, with adversity comes opportunities, and the best way to predict the future is to create it.

The science, policies, and practice of our actions today will form the foundations of a better and prosperous future for generations to come.

Namir Anani is the president and CEO of the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC) in Ottawa.