Our planning for the future of work must include education

It’s hard to find anyone these days who’s not talking about artificial intelligence (AI), robots, automation, the gig economy and what it all means for the future of work. Global diplomatic circles are no different. In June, when leaders of the world’s seven most advanced economies meet in Charlevoix, Quebec, the top-line agenda item will be preparing for the jobs of the future.

The G7 meets annually to discuss the pressing global economic challenges of the day. Rightly, Canada has highlighted the future of work as one of these major challenges — one that will require collective solutions.

While we know that change is coming and the economy is shifting, we don’t know exactly how, when and to what degree. What we do know is that the proliferating new technologies, such as AI and advanced robotics, are changing the face of work. Some jobs will be fully automated. Others will require humans to work alongside emerging technologies, harnessing the best of what machines are good at — routine tasks and analytics — to what humans are best at — critical thinking and creativity. Still others will remain untouched, but how many is unknown. Which jobs will be impacted and how remains to be seen.

The structure of the labour market is also shifting. Gone are the days of gold-watch careers, when workers stuck to the same employer for 50 years or more. Today’s digitally enabled economy allows jobs and projects to be “tasked out,” or unbundled into smaller pieces, across cities, provinces and countries. Further, it encourages temporary contracts that come largely without benefits. Geographically diffuse, based on short-term work and offering few social protections, the gig economy has fundamentally changed the employer-employee relationship.

New technologies demand new skills, new ways of educating and innovative supports to build workers’ resilience. New relationships between people, jobs and tasks means rethinking the social contract as we know it.

The implications of these shifts are massive, and, as a society, we need to be ready to respond. New technologies demand new skills, new ways of educating and innovative supports to build workers’ resilience. New relationships between people, jobs and tasks means rethinking the social contract as we know it.

As the leading colleges and polytechnics across the country, members of our organization, Polytechnics Canada, are well positioned to assist in developing solutions targeted to challenges arising from the proliferation of new technologies. To this end, we offer the following advice to ensure that Canada leads the way on this file: we need to focus on skills above all else, we need innovation in credentials and we need to bring educators and students closer to employers. In other words, we can’t talk about the future of work without also talking about the future of education.


As breakthrough technologies emerge and the forces of creative destruction push the evolution of the labour market, new jobs appear and old ones fade away. Hiring for these new jobs is hard: how do employers know what type of talent they will need? Instead of focusing on credentials, a more flexible approach in the new labour market is to focus on skills. It’s often hard to match an emerging talent need to a specific credential, but breaking the need into specific skills can broaden the search area and make a match easier to find. To succeed in an innovation economy, we need to also nurture an economy where skills are the focus and develop a common vocabulary about the skills that are in demand. In Canada, British Columbia has taken on the role of maverick in building a skills-focused economy. The province has revamped its K-12 education curriculum to focus on applied learning and career readiness, and at the post-secondary level, institutions like Kwantlen Polytechnic University are experimenting with an admissions process that measures competencies instead of grades. Shifting our focus to skills requires buy-in from educators and employers, and on the education side, BC is leading the way.


On credentials, we need to better align the supply side of the labour market with a rapidly transforming demand side. How do we do this? First, we need to make programs shorter where it makes sense. For many, the goal of education is employment, and to ensure that skills gained while in education are immediately relevant to the labour market, placing an emphasis on speed is essential.

Canada’s polytechnics and colleges offer an array of industry-aligned credentials in courses that are built using a just-in-time model. Short-term credentials range from one-year certificates to three-year advanced diplomas and deliver the in-demand skills of tomorrow, today.

We also need to be innovative in how credentials are designed and delivered. For example, a key trait we should be aiming for is “stackability”: credentials that build on and feed into each other. An example is a two-year diploma that propels the learner to the third year of study in a four-year bachelor’s degree. In four years, the learner attains two credentials. Open-ended, stackable credentials promote the lifelong learning and continuous skills enhancement that are so necessary to stay competitive in today’s labour market.


Finally, there’s no better way to ensure that young people are ready to hit the ground running in the job market than by giving them some experience in it. Through work-integrated learning and applied research, polytechnics and colleges provide opportunities for students to get hands-on experience in real-world work environments and ultimately build the skills they will need to succeed in it. Collectively, the members of Polytechnics Canada offer work-integrated learning options for at least 70 percent of all bachelor’s-degree programs.

Bringing students, post-secondary institutions and employers together has benefits on so many fronts: students obtain experience, and industry gains access not only to top student talent but also to top-of-the-line researchers at the institutions and to equipment that is often too capital-intensive for many small business owners to obtain on their own.

Take, for example, the creative economy, where big shifts are happening. New technologies and techniques are changing the ways in which video games, television and film are made. To keep on top of these shifts, Sheridan College, in the Toronto area, has partnered with SPINVFX, a global leader in visual effects production, to create the Screen Industries Research and Training Centre (SIRT). SIRT supports and fosters innovation in production and post-production for the film, television and gaming sectors. SPINVFX has also created an internship program known as Spinternships, where students and recent graduates are matched with mentors, provided training, and given opportunities to familiarize themselves with the many different aspects of the film industry.

There’s a lot we can do to prepare Canadians for the jobs of the future, and much of it means shifting how we think about education. On a global stage, Canada can and should take the lead by being an example for the world. When leaders converge on Charlevoix this June, let’s show the rest of the G7 that if there’s one pipeline we can agree on, it’s the talent pipeline.

About the Authors

Daniel Komesch

At the time of publication, Daniel Komesch was the Director of Policy at Polytechnics Canada.

Nobina Robinson

At the time of publication, Nobina Robinson was the CEO of Polytechnics Canada.