Our Insights

Preparing for the workplace of the future

How to help Canada's youth thrive

There is a critical gap between the skills that are needed for the jobs of tomorrow and those being acquired by today’s youth as part of their academic programs. As our world continues to be reimagined with ongoing technology innovation and automation, there is growing recognition that softer skills may now command a higher premium in the workforce.

Learning and integrating soft skills does not demand a curriculum overhaul, rather, it is identifying, nurturing, and promoting skills and traits that were previously undervalued.

Where disruption is the norm, the value of hard skills depreciates

Key insights

  • Disruption and automation will erode the value of traditional hard skills and increase the value of more foundational human skills such as collaboration, digital literacy, adaptability, and creativity
  • Educational systems must evolve in order to better prepare students for the future of work
  • Canadians should strive to teach the next generation how to identify and develop softer skills, while students should look to take advantage of work-integrated learning opportunities that can help develop those capabilities

While many fear automation could result in job displacement, studies suggest it will instead require different skill sets and a new level of adaptability. Soft skills are yet to be fully defined and measured, much less integrated into the educational system. Preparing students for the future of work, however, is imperative to Canada’s economic growth.

“We know that there are three chokepoints to growth: access to markets, access to capital, and access to talent,” explained Talent X CEO and Founder Lekan Olawoye during a panel conversation at RBC Investor & Treasury Services’ (RBC I&TS) 5th Annual Investor Forum. “If you have a lot of money, and you have the markets to sell to, but you don’t have people to grow your business, you will stagnate.”

Finding an optimal mix

Colleges and universities have long been primary sources for Canada’s most employable skills. The pace of technological innovation is so rapid, however, it often renders those skills obsolete before the end of an educational program.

“Unless you’re using that knowledge directly and engaging with it, what you’re learning in the classroom may just be out of date by the time you complete your program,” said Olawoye.

Preparing students
for the future of
work is imperative
to Canada’s
economic growth

The rapid pace of innovation and disruption will force employers to pivot more quickly, and when their needs change they will either have to re-hire significant portions of the workforce, or retrain staff at a faster rate. Since laying off half the workforce is not a viable option for most, Olawoye believes they will instead seek to up-skill existing staff. As a result, the most valuable candidate of the future is not the one with the most proficiency in a given area, but the one who has the most widely applicable skills, is comfortable with ambiguity, and is able to quickly adapt to change.

“If I’m not constantly learning, constantly pivoting, I will actually be outpaced by my industry and by the new reality,” explained Mark Beckles, the Senior Director of Youth Strategy and Innovation, Corporate Citizenship for RBC, and the panel’s moderator.

Educators and parents are not aligned

Unlike math, English or other traditional subjects, identifying, measuring, and teaching soft skills is not straightforward, and the education system is not currently designed to foster or promote such skills.

Fellow panelist and Actua president and CEO Jennifer Flanagan notes that, “Social perceptiveness is one of the most critical skills that employers say people don’t have. It is essential for collaboration.” She further explained that, “We need to be encouraging our kids, at very young ages, to focus both on the social dynamics of the classroom, as well as the traditional school work. There is room, and a need for both.”

The most valuable
candidate of the future
is the one who has the
most widely applicable
skills, is comfortable
with ambiguity, and is able
to quickly adapt to change

The misalignment between what is being taught in the classroom and what students will need to thrive in the future is particularly evident in a statistic shared by Beckles. “One of the things that we learned as we were building RBC Future Launch was that while 80 percent of educators feel that they are preparing young people adequately for the world of work, only 44 percent of parents actually believe that,” he said.

Schools need to adjust their thinking more than their curriculums

While panelists agreed that schools are in need of some modernization, none were advocating for a significant overhaul. Instead, what needs to change is the approach teachers take to building the skills that will best serve students in the future.

“I don’t think we have to remove anything from the curriculum,” explained Flanagan. “I think it’s about how you describe what’s happening in the classroom, and taking advantage when you see skills that can be developed.”

The best education in soft skills is often learned in the workplace, making co-op programs, and internships vital to students’ future career success

Olawoye adds that the best education in soft skills is often learned in the workplace, rather than the classroom, making co-op programs, and internships vital to students’ future career success. “For you to learn teamwork, or how to be comfortable in uncomfortable settings, you have to put it into practice,” he said. “It’s not a theory, it is work-integrated learning.”

Simply recognizing the value of soft skills can help prepare students for the future

It has been long feared that automation will bring about significant job displacement, but experts believe it will more likely require the existing workforce to adapt and evolve. The most valuable traits in the future will not be those listed on a diploma, but rather those less tangible soft skills, like the ability to adapt to change. The education system will not require a significant reinvention in order to improve. Simply recognizing opportunities to teach these skills in traditional classroom settings, coupled with more co-op and internship opportunities, will go a long way in preparing today’s students for the jobs of tomorrow.

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  1.  RBC Investor & Treasury Services' Investor Forum (May 8, 2019) Workplace of the Future: Preparing for the Jobs of Tomorrow