How Canada can upskill its workforce after the COVID-19 pandemic

By AJ Tibando and Arvind Gupta

AJ Tibando is Executive Director of Palette Skills. Arvind Gutpa is the CEO of Palette Skills.

From left to right: AJ Tibando, the executive director of Palette Skills, and Arvind Gupta, the CEO of Palette Skills.


The COVID pandemic has sped up automation across many industries and is likely to result in the displacement of more than 85 million jobs worldwide over the next five years. As vaccines successfully roll out across the country, and jobs in retail, tourism and hospitality begin to return, some of the nearly one in five unemployed workers who have been searching for a job for over a year will finally have an opportunity to return to work in the coming weeks. But should they?

Should we prioritize getting people back into their old jobs — jobs whose very existence is increasingly threatened? How do we balance the talent needs in traditional sectors with the growing skills gaps in fast-growing, knowledge-based firms? Do we encourage Canadians to move into lower-skilled jobs of today that may be disrupted in the near future, or train them for fulfilling and stable careers with growth opportunities?

The pandemic has highlighted the resilience and continued growth of some Canadian sectors such as Information Communications Technology, where job creation now exceeds pre-pandemic levels. The companies in sectors like these have barely missed a beat during the pandemic, and they continue to struggle to fill vacancies fast enough to meet their growth potential.

Canada needs a strategy to quickly develop skills for careers in growing resilient sectors of our economy.

The disruption caused by COVID-19 has actually created the perfect conditions to consider new, innovative approaches to rapidly upskill and redeploy domestic talent. However, getting it right is complicated. Different industries require different approaches, flexible training timelines, and different access to talent pipelines. But a couple of fundamentals are crucial to upskilling programs for any sector.

Cooperation is key but industry must lead

Upskilling is a complex issue because it involves more than just building new skills. An impactful program must interweave training, mentorship, personal development and job coaching to maximize opportunities for participants to achieve positive labour market outcomes.

Because of these perspectives, an upskilling system requires bringing together educators; researchers; business leaders; hiring managers; and training, development and onboarding specialists to collaboratively build impactful programs.

Palette Skills was built specifically to do this. As a national non-profit dedicated to reskilling Canadians into new careers in growing industries, it has been our experience that the best way to ensure that people get hired is by both building and delivering programs with industry leading the way. By involving industry in both program design and delivery, reskilling programs can solve today’s problems while better preparing us for the future.

Upskilling must balance soft skills and technical skills 

While strong technical skills are often a necessary competency for employment, the reality is that employers are more focused on finding talent with the right foundational and business skills. Through our partnerships with employers, we’ve learned that many companies are prepared and willing to provide technical upskilling to employees who have the right mix of foundational skills and business acumen.

For upskilling programs to succeed en masse, they need to be heavily focused on building on people’s existing foundational skills and teaching them how to ask the right questions, how to approach problem solving, how to think critically and how to build networks and teams. These are all critical for creating value for the organization.

Call them human or soft skills, like communication, negotiation, or networking — this mixed bag of competencies is often the most important determinant to landing a job because these competencies most often drive success within a given role.

Coaching for mindset is the short- and long-term solution

In addition to these key skills, there’s a lot of discussion around the importance of resilience and growth mindsets — how someone approaches a new challenge, how they view learning and how they view their own ability to change and overcome challenges.

Growth mindsets are all about how you learn, rather than what you learn. Any successful upskilling program must focus on helping participants develop and nurture a growth mindset to create functional pathways, allowing them to successfully navigate the career transition process.

Why? Research suggests that an average Canadian will hold over 15 jobs throughout their career. And increasingly, individuals experience a non-linear career path that takes them into different functions and industries. The ability for Canadian workers to pivot their career paths multiple times, to try things out, to constantly be learning, and to adapt, test and grow is essential. This need will only accelerate as the knowledge economy continues to account for a greater percentage of new employment.

The success of Canadian upskilling systems requires programs that help Canadians approach their careers as lifelong learners. To be resilient. To adopt a growth mindset. If we get that right, we’ve solved the hardest part of the problem.

AJ Tibando and Arvind Gupta co-founded Palette Skills in 2019. Palette Skills is a national non-profit funded in part by the Government of Canada and is dedicated to helping organizations access untapped labour markets and create pathways to career growth through demand-driven, industry-led accelerated skilling programs.