Digital HREmpowering young talent to close the digital skills gap

Empowering young talent to close the digital skills gap

Raj Uttamchandani, COO and CPO at MaRS Discovery District, outlines why the next generation is critical to closing the digital skills gap

The economic future is increasingly tied to technology. As we make this shift, employers are already looking to fill jobs that are more demanding, more specialised and more technical. At the same time, they desperately need the broad perspective and soft skills that employees use to solve complex problems in creative ways. It may or may not be true that the vast majority of jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t even been invented yet, but there’s no denying that technology is rapidly accelerating the pace of workplace change.

I work at the nexus of academia, corporate human resources and the new economy, where it’s easy to come in contact with world-class educators and brilliant students. However, with North America’s workforce in flux, there are still many gaps between graduates and the innovative ventures I work with every day, who are trying to take on the world with highly technical science, high-powered software and revolutionary biotech. The pandemic has been an illuminating time to consider these gaps, as it’s only complicated the relationship between education and the innovation economy at a time when the latter requires more skilled talent than ever.

Let’s start with the obvious: young people don’t always have the hard skills employers are looking for. In a recent survey of 500 HR leaders across the United States, 74 percent said there is a skills gap between the candidates they see and the jobs they need filled. Here in Canada, studies have identified digital skills shortages as a cause of lagging growth in our innovation economy—our future lifeline.

Our countries bridge some of these gaps with immigration, as we have always done. That said, the world is getting ever more competitive for tech talent. We might be able to lean on these free agents a little less if our universities and employers could shrink the gap by doing more to meet in the middle. Immigration is an important part of any growing, innovation-based economy, but the talent it provides should be a supplement, not a crutch.

In addition to my work in tech HR, I’m an adjunct prof at the University of Toronto, where I come in contact with many young minds and many accomplished colleagues who are working to shape them.

A degree isn’t meant to replace job training—we need to remember that. For most of us, a university education is about learning the foundational skills that will enable us to learn what we need to learn later on. It’s also a signal to employers that we have the vision, patience and grit to devote several years to building ourselves up.

Still, four years of undergraduate work plus two years or more for graduate work, as many young people now seek, is a lot of classroom time. Their chosen fields, career paths and work worlds may change immensely in the time they’re at school. And there’s only so much any given professor can do to help them emerge with in-demand digital skill sets—digitisation is changing nearly every field, and the skills required for the really technical ones are constantly in flux.

The pandemic has shown how easily entire educational systems and assumptions of a working life can be challenged, prioritising new digital skills at the drop of a hat. We’ve all learned this the hard way, but young graduates are particularly vulnerable to these gaps. I’d like to see universities and employers come together more comprehensively and collaboratively in more degree programmes in order to bridge them.

So, what if every degree included guidance on practical uses for the learning a graduate has done? Graduates would come away better versed in the applications and implications of their degrees and ready to pursue career avenues that are more valuable for their professional growth and the broader economy.

What if, instead of reserving their final year for the toughest academic material, degree programs set aside time for real-world learning? It would better connect students’ degree-specific education with the practical skills required for adulthood.

What if the paid internships and co-op programs some disciplines facilitate were made mandatory and universal for graduating students? Students would no longer need to prove they can apply their skills in the work world, because they would have already done it.

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What if there was a special visa category to allow freer recruitment of young talent across North America? This would allow employers to tap the best talent and give mobile young people access to a wider range of employment options. But it would also help tell students that there is a larger pool of potential employers and competition, promoting the need for digital skills mastery.

And what if industries formed advisory groups to ensure postsecondary institutions, professors and students are kept abreast of the most critical current skills? What if employers collaborated on free pre- and post-graduation programs meant to directly link university curriculums with real-world job requirements? What if HR departments started supplementing their dental and retirement benefits with skills benefits, to ensure that young hires would continue to add skills to their resumes?

We need the people of industry, the recruiters, those seeking students after school, to get involved earlier and highlight their needs, so students aren’t blindsided by application prerequisites and online technical certification courses. We don’t want education to be entirely about life after education, but we do need universities to give students the resources to develop technical know-how, life experience and agility before setting off into the fast-changing, unpredictable adult portion of their lives.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, and many others are already looking for them. However, I do think these are the kind of questions we should be posing. We need colleges and universities to keep doing what they do so well, but we also need to find new creative and responsive ways to connect graduates to the future of work.

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