Canada's got talent — and employers can find it

Elsie Ross
November 2, 2022

New and more innovative models are needed in Canada’s skills development ecosystem to ensure the entire workforce can be used to its full potential, say organizations committed to finding ways to do just that.

Such potential is currently being overlooked or ignored, according to AJ Tibando, executive director of Palette Skills Inc., a national non-profit with up-skilling programs to provide employers with an untapped source of talent.

“You can see that in the underemployment numbers and the number of people working part time, who'd rather be working full time,” she told Research Money.

Tricia Williams also sees a need for a new approach to job training programs. As director of Research, Evaluation and Knowledge Mobilization at the Future Skills Centre (FSC), a federally funded applied research centre that is part of Toronto Metropolitan University, she said governments need to look at more than simply putting “bums through seats." In an interview with Research Money, she argued for efforts to incentivize new and creative approaches, which will result in a more inclusive and resilient workforce.

“It isn’t just about volume but it's about paying attention to what's working, for whom, under what conditions,” said Williams. “And really, that's what FSC is set up to do.”

She added that the centre, whose founding partners also include the Conference Board of Canada and Blueprint, gets to train people and see good results. However, the real objective is to figure out how to do it better.

According to the centre’s 2022 Impact Report, it invests in promising skills training programs, with 79 percent of its projects focused on addressing barriers and advancing career opportunities for under-represented groups, including women and Indigenous peoples.

The Conference Board of Canada highlighted the importance of more effective approaches to training in its own 2022 report, Lost Opportunities. In 2020, states this report, unmet skill needs cost the economy $25 billion, up from $15 billion in 2015. Those findings are echoed in a recently released white paper from Palette.

“It’s clear this problem is complex and is deeper than a skills gap — it’s about human behaviour and how decisions are made,” Tibando stated in this document. “It’s as much about understanding risk, trust and confidence in the hiring process, as it is about developing new digital or soft skills.”

Palette's framework, according to Tibando, creates solutions with better outcomes for workers with sector-specific skills, who want to change sectors.

“We have a model and a framework of how you design these kinds of programs, that is consistently producing these sort of job transfer pathways effectively,” she said. “Now how do we scale that across the country to create an entirely new system for employers and job seekers to better connect?”

Reducing the risk of innovative hiring

Palette works mainly with small and medium enterprises, which are constantly trying to manage their risk, explained Tibando. For these organizations, she acknowledged, “sometimes hiring people who are perhaps different demographic or employment profiles than they've successfully hired in the past seems like a risk.”

Palette addresses this risk by up-skilling job candidates to make them more attractive. “Because it's not just teaching people new things, it's about working with employers to understand what kind of quality assurance they need to see in order to start hiring differently.” If Palette can make them feel comfortable about the process of tapping into these talent pools, she noted, “the solution starts to snowball on itself.”

In this employer-driven model, Palette finds out what jobs companies are struggling to fill, works with them to understand what would make a successful candidate for that role, then tailor a program accordingly, to identify and train those individuals. Employers participate directly, through guest lectures, panel discussions, and networking events.

Admission criteria evaluate people’s potential to succeed in the field, rather than looking primarily at their previous accomplishments. Palette also provides individual or group coaching, but Tibando said the most important objective is to build confidence within participants to be able to get the job.

In 2019, Palette launched SalesCamp, a one-week intensive bootcamp, co-designed with employers. It targets workers coming out of the retail and hospitality sectors, who may have strong sales skills, but no tech experience.

“At the end of the day, a good salesperson is a good salesperson, if you know how to talk to people and you also know how to listen to people,” argued Tibando, who recalls how employers who initially were skeptical about the program have become its biggest boosters.

Programs to build skills, fill needs, and change lives

Palette’s newest venture is the Automation and Digital Agriculture Specialist program in partnership with the University of Saskatchewan. “That's an entirely different sector, entirely different skill set and job profile, but we built that program using the same model again, and using the same framework, and they're seeing similar results,” she said.

Apart from SalesCamp, Palette partners with a training provider, usually an academic institution, to help facilitate the training program.

As for the FSC, Williams said an analysis of projects has found that in general, the connection with people appears to be the most important aspect in determining success.

“Really focusing on the users, and also the partnerships and relationships that need to happen,” she observed. “It isn't just about measuring how many people graduate your program, but building those connection points, so that (1) you're training for the right things, and (2) you have some sense of pathway of where they go afterwards, and you can help facilitate those linkages.”

One project with high success rates is In Motion & Momentum+, a pre-employability project with the Community Career Development Foundation. Participants are persons who have been on unemployment or social assistance for years and who, without some serious intervention, are likely going to be on social assistance for a long time.

“They don't need another resumé workshop — it’s more intensive than that,” said Williams, who described the program’s wraparound supports, such as a coach to support and encourage participants, and help them talk about their fears. “There’s almost a level of counselling involved as well.”

According to the FSC report, “The results indicate more vulnerable and marginalized groups can be reached.” During In Motion & Momentum’s seven years in New Brunswick, the province’s social assistance caseloads dropped by 10 percent, with a positive impact on participants and their families.

The FSC also encouraged the scale-up of projects from pilots to pan-Canadian projects. For example, the New Brunswick government is piloting the FAST (Facilitating Access to Skilled Talent) program, which was initiated by the Immigrant Employment Council of British Columbia. FAST NB offers newcomers the opportunity to have current competencies assessed, as well as offering resources for additional training to fill any gaps.

“We're really seeing a lot of good things coming out of this program and connecting a lot disparate information to better serve the individual immigrant, so it's a single kind of point of connection”, said Williams.

As for the future, she added, while programs may scale up to reach more people, regional or demographic distinctions will mean “it isn’t going to be a one-size-fits-all.”

Tibando agreed, suggesting that many of the same challenges are being faced in distinctive labour markets across the country. “And so you need to build things that are responsive to those communities, while still creating kind of efficiencies at scale.”

By way of example, she pointed to Palette’s partnerships with different Indigenous organizations, where it sees a huge under tapped market.

“In our experience, I think we've been tremendously successful at building partnerships across the country and across different parts of the ecosystem,” concluded Tibando.  “I think there's a lot of appetite in the vast majority of organizations to keep working this problem and just keep trying new things.”

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