An upskilling firm gets upskilled

Tim Lougheed
March 8, 2023

Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) has selected the not-for-profit firm Palette Skills to oversee its $250 million, two-year Upskilling for Industry Initiative. This major investment is targeted at high-growth sectors of the economy, creating a more competitive workforce through programs to help prospective employees tailor their skills. ISED expects more than 15,000 Canadians to benefit, including members of underrepresented groups who should be presented with new and often unprecedented opportunities.

ISED’s challenge has been all too familiar to Palette executive director AJ Tibando, who co-founded the company in 2017.

“We really saw that it was a systems challenge,” she told Research Money. “We have this massive ecosystem of post-secondary institutions, training partners, employers, industry, community organizations — all taking bits and piece of this challenge.”

For Tibando, the pandemic’s silver lining was a major disruption across the economy, which upended jobs and forced many people to re-think their options.

“The disruption caused by COVID-19 has actually created the perfect conditions to consider new, innovative approaches to rapidly upskill and redeploy domestic talent,” she wrote in Research Money. “However, getting it right is complicated. Different industries require different approaches, flexible training timelines, and different access to talent pipelines.”

Palette currently offers training in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Ontario, which takes the form of short-term courses such as Sales Camp, where individuals can learn how to present and apply their experience to become attractive to high tech enterprises. Those enterprises, for their part, also collaborate with Palette on hiring, an area that is often fraught with difficulty for smaller, rapidly growing firms.

Palette conducts its own R&D to continually refine these efforts, Tibando explained. Now, with ISED’s support, this process can be expanded to partners across the country.

“The vision here is that we would be distributing this funding across the ecosystem, to organizations that are doing employer-driven upskilling work,” she said. “When you think about the programs we’ve been running, while they are incredible programs for changing people’s lives and getting employers the talent that they need, what they’ve also been doing is developing some intelligence and IP on how to structure an upskilling program to get certain kinds of results.”

In technically complex fields such as high-tech, upskilling of potential new hires could easily be dismissed as secondary to other priorities, such as creating more sophisticated hardware or software. Tibando cautions that such an attitude leaves many firms at a competitive disadvantage, since any discussion of talent is ultimately a matter of dealing with people.

“Everyone talks about the knowledge economy and the innovation economy and what we’re moving into,” she argued. “But the unit of production that exists in this economy is people — their intelligence, their thinking."

And just as the pandemic highlighted supply chain weaknesses for various goods, she added, supply chains for talent need to be nurtured and maintained just as diligently. “This is a cost to business, if you don’t do that.”

Above all, Canada is already well positioned to tackle this problem. For decades, Tibando pointed out, the country has cultivated one of the most highly skilled and educated work forces in the world, as well as drawing similarly skilled and educated immigrants from everywhere. “And yet, for decades, we hear from employers that they are struggling to find skills, they’re struggling to find talent.”

With the launch of ISED’s upskilling initiative as early as April, she concluded, Palette is poised to show Canadian employers the valuable human resources that are readily available to them. “We’re eager to get out the door.”


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