Designing 21st Century Skills: Government-Driven Solutions

August 21, 2017
Kristine St-Laurent

It is not yet clear how the new BC government will address the human capital challenges facing the province. But take note: if British Columbians are not properly skilled to keep up with the changing nature of work, sustainable prosperity will be out of reach and the province’s economy may suffer. Significant changes in work and technology at a time of chronically sluggish economy-wide productivity growth mean we need to retool our human capital strategies for the future and forge partnerships to support this effort.

Striking the right balance

A number of trends are bearing down on the labour market, from new technologies to demographic developments linked to population aging, substantial inflows of immigrants, and greater workforce diversity. And while we know change is under way, more anxiety-inducing is uncertainty about the impact. How quickly will existing jobs be created, altered, or made obsolete by digital technologies? A challenge for policymakers is to strike a balance between understanding the skills that will remain essentially human versus the tasks that will be displaced by technology—and design a workforce development strategy that produces a skillset appropriate to the 21st century.

Policy not able to keep up with rapid pace of change

What does slow-moving policy look like day-to-day? Arguably, it plays out in part through increasing job polarization, declining or stagnant living standards, and rising inequality. Canada’s performance is not terribly stellar on the key productivity indicators compared with many of our OECD compatriots, with one recent study finding us near the bottom among G7 countries (Figure 1). On a more encouraging note, this is where better policies and better-performing institutions can help.

Government-driven solutions

The extent to which new technologies, labour market restructuring, and shifting demographics are transforming the nature of work remains uncertain. But regardless of how this plays out, there are baseline assumptions that can guide public policy through a time of change and uncertainty. The future world of work looks less secure, with jobs increasingly polarized by skills and education, and with fewer opportunities for “regular”, long-term employment.

The Business Council is encouraged to see the new government’s interest in child care and the commitment to boost support to post-secondary education as ways to increase labour force participation and upskill British Columbians.

It’s also important to attract and retain global talent. Smart immigration policies add talent to the workforce and give the province a competitive edge in the global race to build a successful knowledge-based economy. BC should work with the federal government to expand its annual allotment under the Provincial Nominee Program (PNP). And the PNP program itself should be tweaked to include doctoral and other graduate university-level programs as a way to encourage more well-educated foreign graduates to remain in BC.

Governments should also continue to support investments in STEM-related occupations and the industries that rely on STEM and related technical skills. In an era of waning job quality in some sectors, STEM-related jobs lead the pack for high-paying, quality employment.

Lastly, governments can also consider partnering with businesses and incentivize private sector training schemes to better equip workers to adapt to new technologies and operating environments. Business will be an indispensable partner in the design of a 21st century workforce.

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