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Humans Wanted: How Canadian youth can thrive in the age of disruption

Canada is facing a quiet crisis.

In the coming decade, half of all jobs will be disrupted by technology and automation. Some will change dramatically. Others will disappear completely, replaced by jobs that are yet to be invented.

We are living through an era of radical change, with the latest advancements in artificial intelligence and automation transforming the way we work, even in unexpected fields such as law and customer service.

How will we prepare Canadian youth for the workplace of the future?

Over the past year, RBC conducted a major study of the Canadian workforce. We crisscrossed the country, talked to students, workers, educators and employers in every sector. We studied job openings and automation trends and dug into mountains of data to figure out how the country is changing and what we can do to prepare.

We discovered that the four million Canadian youth entering the workforce over the next decade are going to need a foundation of skills that sets them up for many different jobs and roles rather than a single career path. They will need a portfolio of human skills such as critical thinking, social perceptiveness, and complex problem solving to remain competitive and resilient in the labour market.

We found that Canada is shifting from a jobs economy to a skills economy, and yet employers, educators and policy makers are not prepared. Here are four things you need to know about the coming skills revolution and the future of work.

Disruption is accelerating

It used to be that the threat of automation was only for routine, repetitive forms of work such as assembly lines. Now, algorithms are building legal cases, replacing administrative assistants and taking customer service calls for major corporations. We’ve dealt with technology replacing jobs before, but this time it’s different.

More than a quarter of Canadian jobs will be heavily disrupted by automation in the next decade, and half will require a new mix of skills even if the job title stays the same.

That doesn’t mean those jobs are going away. The Canadian economy will create 2.4-million new jobs between now and 2021 — but almost all of them will require a different approach. The economy will be built on a mobile workforce, constantly learning, training and upgrading to meet the demands of a changing world.

Flexibility is the future

Change is coming fast, making it hard to know what jobs will look like a decade from now. We need a new way of thinking about job requirements. Developing human skills — things like critical thinking, judgment, and decision making — will empower young people to pivot between careers and across sectors even as job descriptions change.

We analyzed data on hundreds of different occupations and found that many jobs, even in disparate fields, are connected by a set of foundational skills. We grouped jobs based on similar skills into six clusters. By focusing on the skills required, it is surprisingly easy to pivot between seemingly unconnected roles. Musicians and paramedics might not seem to have a lot in common, but both jobs require high levels of focus, excellent analytical skills and attention to detail. It takes upgrading only four skills for someone to transition from dental assistant to graphic designer.

Of course, many transitions require investment in terms of time and money, but this presents an opportunity for educators and policymakers to offer new approaches to training and development.

Digital literacy is essential

Digital fluency will be essential to all new jobs. This does not mean we all need to code like a Silicon Valley programmer. It’s an understanding of technology, of how to interact with computers, smartphones and whatever comes next, that will be essential. Soon, we will come to think about digital literacy like we do regular literacy: a prerequisite for nearly any job.

We need to prepare for the future of work

Job disruption is one of the most pressing problems facing Canada today. Without the right people and the right skills, the economy won’t work. If we can get Canadians, especially young Canadians, to tap into these skills foundations, our economy will be ready for the skills transition.

We need schools to teach and certify skills, governments to develop programs that support lifelong learning, and companies to hire for core skills over credentials. By building skillsets that allow them to move from job to job, young Canadians will be able to take advantage in a new economy where it doesn’t matter what you’ve done — it matters what you can do.

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