How to build a diverse talent ecosystem for Canada

The race for tech talent is on, and it’s global.

The race for tech talent is on, and it’s global. Tightening demographics and international mobility through virtual work are fuelling an already competitive battle to attract skilled tech workers. Canada seems well placed when it comes to talent acquisition, particularly in tech and innovation. After all, Canada has one of the most highly skilled and educated workforces in the world.

Too often, industry and policymakers tend to see growth and competitiveness in opposition to equity and diversity.

But while Canada stands out when it comes to educated talent, firms here still struggle to recruit skilled workers. Many in the tech space—including Palette Skills—believe that an educated workforce alone is not enough to solve the talent crunch facing Canada’s innovation landscape. Despite recent layoffs in the sector, Canada’s technology and IT firms continue to drive job growth in the country, creating over 100,000 jobs in December, and the evidence is that skilled workers—from developers to customer service reps—are in high demand.

So the real question is how to better leverage the country’s existing talent, and connect it with the demands of the future economy. And to do this, we need to make sure we are helping individuals—and especially those from traditionally underrepresented groups—achieve their highest potential. When we get that right, we also help Canada’s highest growth firms access the talent they need to grow and scale.

At Palette Skills, we believe there need to be better pathways connecting skilled workers to new jobs, thereby ensuring the country utilizes the talented workforce it already has. We’ve recently released a comprehensive white paper examining how Canada can leverage its skilled workforce to build a more inclusive economy.

An inclusive and thriving economy

In our work with our ecosystem of industry and academic partners, a key starting point lies in understanding that economic disruption can create innovation and growth, but it can also mean chaos and instability in people’s lives—whether experienced as a job loss, or in the increased cost of living. The risk is that economic gains in growing sectors of the economy like tech are not felt equally among all population groups.

In particular, racialized Canadians, newcomers, Indigenous peoples, women, and mid-career workers are being left out of the recovery. While individuals from these and other groups are looking for work, they are experiencing barriers to finding employment. The result is chronically higher unemployment rates among Canadians who most need to get ahead. For example, figures from 2016 show that Black Canadians faced an unemployment rate of 10.1 percent, compared to the overall Canadian average of 6.4 percent.

The challenge is to find better ways to future-proof Canadian businesses and workers. The problem is not simply about building a skilled workforce, but creating the systems and structures required to rapidly redeploy talent across sectors as demand for talent shifts. Solving this issue is important for an inclusive and productive Canadian economy, already impacted by disruption from automation, recession, and the global pandemic. And it will be critical for the tech sector going forward.

Connected upskilling

Motivated by a concern to help Canadians facing employment dislocation as a result of automation, and help close Canada’s digital skills gap by leveraging overlooked talent, Palette Skills has developed a model of upskilling based on research carried out with academic and employer partners.

The result was an upskilling program called SalesCamp, a one-week intensive bootcamp to get Canadians with great sales skills ready for the booming business-to-business (B2B) tech sales sector. The program was co-designed with employers, and targeted at workers wanting to build professional careers, even if they lacked a tech background. We next launched an accelerated cybersecurity program designed for people with underused quantitative analysis backgrounds.

Most recently, we unveiled the Automation and Digital Agriculture Specialist program in partnership with the University of Saskatchewan. The 8-week program builds skills in automation and digitization technologies in agricultural production and processing. The goal is to give workers the tools to identify, manage, and implement Agtech solutions across the agri-food value chain.

The results of these and other upskilling initiatives are encouraging. As our white paper makes clear, industry-led upskilling works not only because such programs are responsive to employer needs, but also because they make a diverse pipeline of talent available for innovative Canadian companies in growth.

Our upskilling programs, for example, consistently generate close to a 90 percent job placement rate for workers, compared to traditional training programs that range between 50-75 percent. In turn, this record of success helps build diversity in Canada’s tech sector, with 70 percent of our participants identifying as part of an equity-deserving group, 55 percent as newcomers to Canada, and 44 percent as women.

Too often, industry and policymakers tend to see growth and competitiveness in opposition to equity and diversity. At Palette Skills, we think it’s time to see equity and competitiveness as complementary parts of a continuous loop, where the strength of one feeds into the development of the other.

Recruiting potential

Our research shows that too often, individuals attempting to transition into jobs in new sectors struggle to have their past experiences and skills recognized. So a key ingredient to upskilling must be potential-focused recruitment.

Admissions to our programs, for example, evaluate a candidate’s potential to succeed in the field, and are not simply based on previous accomplishments. This helps the program connect to untapped labour markets while avoiding replicating existing barriers. Additionally, the active participation of employer partners in upskilling gives hiring managers the chance to interact with participants, and watch how they learn and respond.

On a broader level, we believe that the capacity of Canadian society to maintain social cohesion will hinge on whether ordinary Canadians can benefit from economic gains brought by the changing economy. Palette Skills and its partners in the upskilling ecosystem are advocating a national system of upskilling and job transition support, one that’s focused on enabling individuals and employers to thrive in an innovative and inclusive economy.

Get in touch with Palette Skills today and learn how they are helping Canadian startups hire better!

Feature image courtesy of Palette Skills.

AJ Tibando

AJ Tibando is the CoFounder and Chief Strategy Officer of Palette Skills, a national nonprofit focused on meeting the needs of Canada’s most innovative companies by upskilling workers from diverse backgrounds to transition into new industries.

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