Preparing for a different future

In its review of Canada’s job creation performance for the past year, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce presents a largely discouraging picture. Canada generated just 99,000 net new jobs, and about 95 per cent of these were part-time jobs, according to the Chamber.

In its review of Canada’s job creation performance for the past year, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce presents a largely discouraging picture. Canada generated just 99,000 net new jobs, and about 95 per cent of these were part-time jobs, according to the Chamber.

Moreover, the majority of net new jobs went to those 55 and older.

This is not the picture of a robust economy.

A mismatch between the skills of the unemployed and the skills employers need is often blamed for Canada’s high unemployment and there’s no question skills shortages make the situation worse.

Yet if all the job vacancies reported by Statistics Canada were filled by those currently unemployed, there would still be more than one million unemployed Canadians.

The recent federal budget focused on skills upgrading and training, which is important if more Canadians are to have the opportunity to acquire in-demand skills.

But the real issue goes beyond that.

We don’t have a handle on is what kind of economy, and what mixture of jobs, Canada will need in the future.

What kind of world should we be preparing for, and how do we shape it to our benefit?

These are not easy questions, but Canada could learn from the U.K. Commission for Employment and Skills, which has just issued an important report, The Future of Work: Jobs and Skills in 2030.

The commission identified what it called the 13 most influential and plausible trends impacting the jobs and skills landscape and most of these trends would apply in Canada as well.

They include: Demographic change (including population aging); the impact of information and communications technology (ICT), outsourcing and globalization on the work environment; the digitalization of production (including advanced manufacturing technologies); ICT development and the age of big data; changing economic perspectives due to globalization and technological change; Asia’s growing power and influence; new business ecosystems based on networks; and climate change and other environmental risks.

The commission ends up with four possible scenarios.

But each of them, in differing ways, points to a risk of weakened job security for much of the workforce, the prospect of a two-tier society of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’ growing power of employers over employees, a widening income gap, the risk of an hourglass-shaped labour market with the squeezed middle of the workforce watching jobs disappear, and the threat to many jobs, including professional jobs, from advances in technology.

“Jobs which have traditionally occupied the middle of the skills hierarchy and earnings range, such as white collar administrative roles and skilled/semi-skilled blue-collar roles, are declining at a significant rate due to changes in work organization driven by technology and globalization,” the commission warns.

“New types of jobs are emerging to fill the middle grounds but these have markedly different entry routes and skill requirements.”

At the same time as many jobs are threatened, there could be a shortage of high-skilled talent. The commission also expects there will be growth in health and social care jobs with an aging population, but with technology changing the profile of many jobs.

Many professional jobs could be automated, including the impact of ICT using smart algorithms. Automation in the back office, e-commerce and other technology impacts will change the skills mix in retailing and logistics.

A successful manufacturing sector will have to respond to globalization, new technologies, and changing patterns of international trade by shifting to advanced manufacturing systems and a highly-skilled workforce in production networks.

The education sector will play a bigger role with the development of market-based and employer focused education, greater use of online education and training and a greater demand for programs that can demonstrate future employability.

In Canada we face huge challenges in trying to understand what the future holds, and this not only affects jobs and incomes.

It affects innovation strategy, the design of the pension system, the kinds of training and mobility programs we have, what we teach in schools, and how, and the work rules to protect employees in a world where there may be many more temporary jobs, to give just some examples.

We need to much better understand what kinds of jobs and incomes can Canadians look forward to, and how do we best prepare Canadians for a much different future.

We will pay a big price if we delay getting much better focused on our future world and what we can do to shape it to our benefit.

Economist David Crane is a syndicated Toronto Star columnist. He can be reached at crane@interlog.com.

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