Polytechnics here to help: Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) – the software that drives Industry 4.0 – has both dramatically improved efficiency and produced a new set of challenges for governments, employers and individuals alike. For governments, there is a legal and regulatory framework to be developed – one that incents innovation but respects privacy and security. Employers need to grapple with the introduction of new technologies or the very real possibility of obsolescence. Individuals are navigating labour markets heavily impacted by emerging technologies, with implications for employment and the necessary skill requirements.

AI is pervasive across sectors and in every region of the country, from healthcare to aviation to the skilled trades. Keeping pace requires an innovative, entrepreneurial and, perhaps most importantly, diversified talent pipeline. Innovative solutions are required – ones that increase and diversify the supply of AI talent while supporting firms looking to adopt new technologies. If Canada wants to lead in the area of AI adoption and the future of work more broadly, we have to get this right.

That is where Canada’s polytechnics and colleges come in. Polytechnics are well-positioned to educate and train a workforce for jobs of the future. They are also ideally suited for partnership with firms and organizations looking to adapt their processes, people or equipment for new business realities. If these institutions are intimidated by or anxious about these challenges, they certainly aren’t acting like it.

Take agriculture, for example. Though this sector isn’t top-of-mind in conversations about AI, it should be. Global concerns about food security and climate change put this sector on the hot seat when it comes to productivity and efficiency. Saskatchewan Polytechnic brings programs, industry partnerships and collaborative research to the table, helping to bridge the gap between a theoretical understanding of AI and its real-world application in the agricultural sector. Faculty, researchers and students are helping companies solve critical challenges, from maximizing crop yields to adopting new technologies and identifying opportunities for growth. This effort is critical to Canada’s investments in the Protein Industries Supercluster and Agri-food Economic Strategy Table.

Canada has a further opportunity to lead when it comes to commercializing AI and facilitating business innovation. As firms seek to adopt new technologies and test or pilot innovative ideas, they will need access to world-class expertise, facilities and equipment. Given the capital-intensive nature of research and development – particularly when it requires specialized equipment and knowledge – smaller companies are at a disadvantage. The multi-disciplinary spaces polytechnics create for students, researchers and industry can help companies solve real-time challenges, but also expose students and researchers to emerging technologies.

For example, the Productivity and Innovation Centre (PIC) housed at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology is a doorway to such services and solutions. As one of North America’s largest innovation spaces focused on helping businesses become more competitive, the centre offers services around technology adoption, product development and testing, applied research and workforce education. The centre both serves employers and strengthens the ties between industry and the institution, informing curricula and signalling industry trends.

In Ottawa, the DARE (Discovery, Applied Research, and Entrepreneurship) District at Algonquin College serves a similar role. DARE is a multidisciplinary space for students, faculty and industry to collaborate – a critical collision in an environment of constant reinvention. Recognizing the part technology and AI play in workplaces of today and the future, the DARE District has a Data Analytics Centre, Cyber Security Centre and Maker Zone studio, all serving as points of intersection between post-secondary education and industry.

However, while post-secondary institutions have long trained the next generation of talent, this is no longer sufficient. Given the speed and magnitude of change, it is almost certain that every person will require some form of additional training throughout their career. In its 2019 budget, the federal government introduced the Canada Training Benefit, signalling an expectation of continuous change. Here, polytechnics are also stepping up.

Navigating workers to training at mid-career is not without challenges. For those several years removed from formal education, it isn’t easy to jump back in. However, if they’re going to take the plunge, it is crucial that programs suited to mid-career learners are available. It is also important to offer programs short in duration, workplace-focused and reasonably priced.

Among Polytechnics Canada members, we have identified more than 5,800 such courses in programs as diverse as information technology, business and finance, culinary, languages and health care. For instance, Humber is helping both individuals and businesses in the Toronto area with short, flexible courses on topics ranging from essential computer skills for small business, to the Internet of Things and big data. These skills are critical to an AI-enabled economy.

So, as the world around us changes and we become as reliant on artificial intelligence as we are on our smartphones, we need to make sure both our companies and our labour markets are ready. Luckily, Canada’s polytechnics are here to help.

About the Author

Matthew Henderson, Director of Policy at Polytechnics Canada

Matt contributes to the research, writing and evidence-gathering that support the policy advocacy objectives of the organization. He engages with member working groups to ensure policy research and advocacy is rooted in the latest data about students, programs and graduates. Matt holds a Master’s degree in International Public Policy from the Balsillie School of International Affairs and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Wilfrid Laurier University.