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Opinion: We must think outside the academic box to find enough skilled workers

A 2022 report from the Conference Board of Canada found that 56 per cent of Canadian businesses report a skills gap in their workforce
A 2022 report from the Conference Board of Canada found 56 per cent of Canadian businesses report a skills gap in their workforce

Dave McCann is the president of IBM Canada

When I speak with other business leaders across Canada, many say they are experiencing significant talent gaps. They express urgency for their employees to be equipped with the emerging skills their organizations require.

A 2022 report from the Conference Board of Canada supports these leaders’ observations. It found 56 per cent of Canadian businesses report a skills gap in their workforce, 45 per cent of businesses have difficulty finding candidates who have the skills needed to do the job at the required level and, within a decade, nine out of 10 jobs will require digital skills.

Prior to the pandemic, there was a great deal of discussion about the workforce of the future and the impending skills revolution (and gap) driven by transformative technologies like artificial intelligence – technologies which have had a profound impact on almost all industries and professions. The pandemic has only exacerbated this. Like many others in the technology sector, we at IBM have first-hand experience in this competitive market trying to find the right skills to fill high-tech roles.

Part of the issue in filling STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) roles appears to be that, while many students and job seekers want to pursue these positions, they don’t know how. An IBM study released earlier this year revealed there are various misconceptions about skills required and barriers to education for those looking for tech jobs. Sixty-six per cent of Canadians surveyed think they need academic degrees, 62 per cent believe they do not have the required skills and 36 per cent of Canadians surveyed worry that acquiring the necessary credentials would be too expensive. This adds another layer of complexity to the issue.

While this skills gap is a significant challenge, it also presents an opportunity for leaders to rethink how we better prepare Canadians for the new digital jobs of the future. A key action we can take now is to raise awareness and offer more accessible training and skills development. If we can make training more available, we are readying generations of workers for their careers.

At IBM, we recognize that skills development can begin early in life, which aligns with IBM’s long-established commitment to shaping the future of skills and education. We do this by investing in programs which provide opportunities for students of all ages to access training that will help them succeed.

Reaching youth early not only helps to prepare them for future technology-driven opportunities, but will also help them develop capabilities around collaboration, adaptability and leadership. One example of how we do this today is our IBM Skills Build program which provides free technology training to learners with a focus on underrepresented communities. This is just one of the initiatives IBM has implemented to help achieve its pledge of training 30 million people worldwide for in-demand job skills by 2030.

Other organizations outside of the tech industry are also recognizing the value of and investing in skills development. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment has a program called MLSE LaunchPad. It is a sports and STEM program within the organization that provides technology and resources to encourage youth to explore ways to integrate critical thinking skills and STEM into their lives. The message here is that digital skills are not just for jobs in the technology industry.

While academia reimagines curriculum, Canadian public and private sector organizations also have an opportunity to consider the learning, development and training investments that will deliver the most value. All parties must work together and rethink the way we approach education, skills training and hiring to prepare the workforce to navigate the evolving digital economy. Taking steps to tackle the country’s skills gap and creating a more skilled workforce will support Canada in staying competitive on a global level.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.

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