New program to equip mid-career workers for jobs in the innovation economy

Lindsay Borthwick
February 20, 2019

This year’s federal budget is expected to focus on helping workers adapt to the changing nature of work. In a few weeks time, Canadians will find out what that really means at a policy level. In the meantime, a new national not-for-profit called Palette is developing a training platform to help mid-career workers whose jobs are threatened by automation transition to the jobs of the future. 

Palette aims to match fast-growing companies with experienced workers whose career paths are being derailed by new technologies. Through short, intensive training programs, it will provide mid-career workers with sector-specific skills they need to jump across sectors — a lateral career move that has traditionally been difficult to make.

Estimates of the impact of automation vary widely, but a 2016 report from the Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship estimated that 42% of Canadian jobs will be impacted by automation in the next 10 to 20 years. 

[rs_quote credit="AJ Tibando" source="Executive Director of Palette"]What is new and so urgently in need of support is this idea of cross-sectoral job transition: helping people take the skills they have and move them outside of their sector[/rs_quote]

The fact that automation is one of the major forces reshaping Canada’s labour market isn’t new. What is different today is the set of workers whose jobs are at risk. Automating technologies, including artificial intelligence, are beginning to displace highly skilled workers, who possess strong educational backgrounds and significant job experience in a given sector. They are people who have traditionally anticipated moving up the ranks in a single sector and have never had to think about jumping from one sector to another before.

The challenge they face is compounded by the fact that Canada’s skills development ecosystem isn’t evolving quickly enough to meet their needs. 

“What is new and so urgently in need of support is this idea of cross-sectoral job transition: helping people take the skills they have and move them outside of their sector. That is something we really need to think differently about. Continuing to invest more into the same kind of programs we already have is not going to crack open this problem,“ said AJ Tibando, executive director of Palette, in an interview with RE$EARCH MONEY.

Tibando co-founded the organization with Arvind Gupta, professor of computer science at the University of Toronto and former CEO and scientific director of Mitacs, with the support of the Brookfield Institute. Additional partners include the Council of Canadian Innovators, the Information Technology Association of Canada, and many others.

Future skills in focus

Palette is emerging at a time when the federal government is wrestling with how to help Canadians thrive in a global labour market that is undergoing massive change. On February 14, Patty Hadju, Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour, and Bill Morneau, Minister of Finance, were at Ryerson University in Toronto to launch a federally funded “lab” that will develop, test and measure new approaches to skills development throughout the work life. The Future Skills Centre, as it is known, was announced in May 2018, at which time the government committed $225 million over four years, and $75 million per year thereafter to future skills.

[rs_related_article slug="federal-government-launches-new-agency-to-address-digital-shifts-in-job-market"]

The Centre is part of the government’s response to a series of recommendations made by the Advisory Council on Economic Growth about how to equip Canadians for a changing economy. In their third report, released in December 2017, the Advisory Council stated bluntly: “Canada’s skills development infrastructure is simply not equipped to meet the challenges that lie ahead,” and specifically identified “a large gap in institutional support and training during Canadians’ most productive years.” It predicted that an additional $15 billion of annual investments in adult skills development would be needed to help Canadian navigate the labour market changes being driven by new technology, and issued an urgent call to the government to rethink how Canada approaches learning, work and training.

Tibando agrees that change is urgent. “With any foreseeable emergency, where you know something is coming but it’s not here yet, you face the same challenge: Until people experience it, it can be hard to explain why you want to prevent it as opposed to treat it. We’re still in the prevention window, but I think that’s why it’s so important that we push forward with these kinds of investments now,” she said.

An industry-led approach

In addition to its focus on mid-career workers, Palette’s model differs from existing ones by starting with the needs of employers instead of job seekers, said Tibando. “We’ve flipped [the traditional model] to be demand-led instead of supply-led,” she said. “We start with the employers who are looking for talent and ask, 'Who are these companies, and what jobs are you struggling to fill? What are the skills and attributes that make up a good candidate for that job?'”

Palette brings together employers looking for the same types of skills into consortia, and then identifies jobs at risk of automation that use those same skills. Cohorts of workers then participate in a six-week training program, followed by a four-month work placement. For example, a Palette program could help salespeople, who have strong communication and negotiation skills, to transition from the retail to technology sector. Experienced retail workers would gain sector-specific skills that enable them to walk in the door of a tech company and speak the company’s language. The subsequent work placement is intended to ensure that workers not only develop new skills but also secure jobs in a new sector.

The non-profit is also striving to create a training model that will meet the needs of different industries in various parts of the country. “One thing that we’ve seen over the past year in our research is that this [labour market disruption] is a phenomenon taking place in almost every sector and in almost every region of Canada. We've tried to design a model that is flexible enough that it can be plugged into whichever community and whichever sector is being impacted. To be successful, it has to be able to respond to what is happening in that local community,” said Tibando.

Palette will launch its first training programs later this year.


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