Technology, changing demographics, and disruptive events like the COVID-19 pandemic are a few of the forces changing the way Canadians work and the skills they need to thrive. These changes are often unpredictable and still not fully understood.
Zabeen Hirji, Executive Advisor, Future of Work at Deloitte Canada, insists, however, that employers and employees can work together, along with leaders in government and education, to build the learning opportunities that will help the workforce prepare for long-term changes and respond to immediate disruptions.
Talking with Magnet, Hirji shared some of her insights on the conversations leaders and workers need to have, and how those conversations can give way to the flexible and ongoing learning workers need in a constantly changing labour landscape.
“There’s research to show that jobs will be lost and new ones will be created in the coming years. The challenge is in how we manage those transitions,” Hirji says. But by starting with an acknowledgement that forces like automation will impact jobs, organizations also open the door to offering solutions and building learning opportunities that allow workers to evolve with their role, offering flexibility along the way.
Hirji adds, “The endpoint may not be clearly defined, and leaders have to acknowledge that they don’t know everything about the future of work, but should still be willing to bet on the potential of their employees.”
Hirji offers an example where a large financial institution implemented a program in 2018 to create a shared journey map. They organized thousands of employees across hundreds of branches into smaller groups to discuss how the industry and customer expectations were changing and how their jobs were expected to change in the future. Leaders weren’t afraid to be vulnerable.
These conversations led to insights on where workers had learning gaps and informed the creation of digital and in-person learning that focused on enduring human skills to allow employees to adapt.
Hirji says, “This is an example of a partnership or collaboration that’s different, where organizations aren’t afraid to talk about issues for which they don’t have all the answers. Some organizations say, ‘Oh, you know, if we say to people, your jobs might be affected, your jobs may no longer be required, they’re gonna leave now.’ But in this case, the opposite happened and employee engagement went way up because employees built trust through the candour and support offered.”
When it comes to building models for learning and upskilling workers, conversations and learning need to not only be ongoing but should be extended to include government and post-secondary sectors as well.
Hirji says that the typical career trajectory will no longer be school, work, retirement. For some, it will be “school, work, learning while working, parental leave, school and so on.” Learning and career preparation through internships and within more formal educational settings like colleges and universities will no longer be the exclusive domain of young people.
“Right now, in terms of investment in ongoing learning and upskilling, Canada lands somewhere in the middle of the G20 countries. This won’t lead to inclusive prosperity. We need post-secondary, government, and business leaders to work together in new ways to enable career resilience,” Hirji says. “And let’s not forget, employers are facing skills shortages. I’m talking about creating a win/win.”
As Canadians made transitions during the COVID-19 pandemic, adaptability, communication, collaboration, and empathy were the key skills that enabled productive remote working.
While Canadians hadn’t encountered this type of dynamic before, Hirji argues that workers and employers can set themselves up for this type of success in the future by building a capacity and confidence for learning among workers. That means offering continuous access to learning that runs concurrently with a worker’s career journey.
Hirji highlights two ways that employers, post-secondary institutions, workers, and government can jointly invest in ongoing learning:
Microcredentials: Short, focused programs or courses that allow users to demonstrate an understanding of either soft, which Hirji calls “human” skills, or technical skills, microcredentials are significantly more narrowly focused than more long-term programs and are usually tailored to one competency or skill.
“More institutions are thinking about and implementing microcredentials in incremental ways, but need to move faster and scale-up,” Hirji says.
“I’m a proponent of being proactive rather than waiting for someone to be unemployed to reskill them, especially when there is a high probability their job will be lost or change significantly. For example, I would like to see governments think about training and EI as a single benefit, with a portion being paid to access targeted training and other ecosystem support while employed. Not only is this good for the economy, it can potentially avoid the social costs of job losses. It’s both the right and the smart thing to do.”
In this scenario, stakeholders would come together to create new models that make learning accessible to mid-career workers in flexible ways. Shorter, more quickly digestible courses, especially if developed with industry needs in mind, would offer workers a more flexible form of skill development.
Flexibility in schedule and self-directed learning: “Employers and workers need to be proactive, but there are some practical challenges,” Hirji admits. Workers should have access to self-directed learning, but also need the time to complete required training.
Hirji says there are some interesting funding and delivery models that could be explored.
“For the thousands of SMEs across the country, whether through tax credits or direct support, we could allow employees to work for four days and devote one day to training, either formally or self-directed,” Hirji says. “That could be supplemented through opportunities where an intern or another worker can backfill the role when the learner is absent. That’s a model that could be worth supporting because people are reskilling to keep their job or move into a more advanced position.”
Workers would not be required to take extensive time off work, or wait until they’re unemployed to be upskilled.
Underpinning the strategies that Hirji considers successful is openness and empathy on the part of leaders in business and the public sector to hear the concerns of employees and address them thoughtfully.
“Right now, we’re confronting the effects of the pandemic, but there will be other crises in the future. We’ve been leading with our humanity in this crisis and as a result, we have been able to draw out the best in people in very challenging circumstances,” Hirji concludes. “Many have also prioritized support for mental health and resilience. I feel optimistic that we have leaders who like to bring their humanity to work and will continue to lead with empathy and compassion, something that will be key to preparing workers to succeed in the future of work, which is now”.