Everyone Has a Stake in the Future of Work

May 14, 2019

By: Jennifer Flanagan

Last week I was invited to speak on a panel at RBC’s annual investor forum where they provide their clients with thought-provoking information about current issues and trends that influence their businesses. This year’s theme was Resiliency in Times of Change. I was so pleased to speak on behalf of Actua about how to prepare youth, especially those most underrepresented, for the future of work.

RBC has supported Actua’s youth engagement work for over twenty years and has been a national leader in recognizing the importance of investing in preparing youth with the confidence and skills they need to thrive in the future. It is very telling that RBC’s clients, large pension funds, and asset managers, requested that the topic of the future of work be addressed. I’ve been working in this field for a long time, and never have I seen such growth in interest by companies from virtually all industries around preparing today’s youth for the workplace of tomorrow.

Why such broad-based interest? Why now?

There is significant and growing worry among individuals and companies about the impacts of automation on their businesses. They are seeing both the opportunities and challenges of leveraging technology for business improvement, be it process efficiency, data management, predictive opportunities, trend and market analysis, cyber-physical system development, HR management and ultimately improving the bottom line. Alongside the benefits also emerge the challenges. The fear of losing jobs to machines. The skilled labour shortage facing the country, and the world. Re-skilling. Up-skilling. Reimagining businesses altogether.

But automation is not the only big change that will influence the workplace of the future. Industry 4.0 aside, rapid changes across virtually every aspect of society are causing workplace transformation and the consequent need for a skills revolution.

The speakers at the RBC Investors forum addressed a number of drivers of change that would require resilience. These include urbanization, climate change, increasing inequality, global market integration, geopolitical uncertainty, automation versus augmentation, demographic changes, and population decline. The rise of data as the most valuable asset in the knowledge economy was also identified, paired with the increasing need for data ethics.

Even though the panelists were specifically speaking to how these drivers would affect the investment sector, it was very clear that these things will also have a direct impact on the workforce of the future, driving the skills revolution for which Actua is preparing Canadian youth.

While the uncertainty is great, the outlook is not grim. We do not need to brace for a robotic workforce. All evidence points to the rise in the need for traditionally human or soft skills. As RBC’s Humans Wanted Report triumphantly exclaims, “our humanity is our competitive advantage.”

But we do need to prepare youth for the coming changes. At Actua, we build key characteristics into our programs that prepare youth to face workforce uncertainties.

First, we contextualize all our STEM programs so that they focus on leveraging technology to solve a community, social or global challenge. This teaches kids the engineering design process, how to invent, test, fail, iterate, fail, make design changes, fail, try again and succeed. We are building a generation that is resilient to failure, able to solve tough global challenges, skilled in design, sequencing and logic processes so critical for data-driven jobs.

Next, we help kids identify the many skills they are developing and show them how those skills can be applied to solve a range of problems. This avoids steering them toward one single career path, such as “I want to be a doctor,” where the probability of achieving that one narrow goal is low. Instead, it empowers them to say, “this is the problem I want to solve and here are some skills I have that could help.” This opens up a world of job opportunities. We are building a generation adaptable to uncertainty and changes in industry, and ready to take on jobs that don’t even exist yet.

Finally, we break down barriers to access to STEM programs for kids who are notoriously underrepresented. These include girls and young women, Indigenous youth, youth living in Northern and remote communities, and those facing socio-economic challenges. We empower young people through impactful mentor experiences with undergraduate student instructors and industry experts working in STEM. We help them start to build their networks, meet engaged and inspiring adults and peers with similar interests because we know that strong networks lead to good jobs. We are building a generation of well-networked people regardless of socio-economic background, gender, ethnicity or privilege.

We are building a generation with global skills that will serve them well in an increasingly interconnected global economy, a generation that is re-connected to the land and its worth in this age of rapid climate change.

This is what Actua is all about. Our programs leverage science and technology, especially new and emerging tech like AI, to teach both hard skills and foundational human competencies. This is our powerful “future skills” formula.

By developing meaningful relationships with leading industry players like RBC, Google, Microsoft and many others, who are investing not only money, but also time and deep commitment to this issue, we are collectively building a national ecosystem resilient to failure and ready to take on the future.

RBC recently announced a $1 million grant to Actua through their Future Launch Program to support a national program that will better prepare undergraduate students for the future of work.