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Canadians have been falling behind when it comes to adopting digital skills, leaving its work force ill-prepared to meet the needs of an increasingly digital economy. Now, organizations are partnering with educational institutions to offer new alternatives to traditional degree programs.

According to Salesforce Canada’s 2022 Digital Skills Index, 81 per cent of Canadians say they don’t have the resources to learn the digital skills required by businesses today, and 86 per cent say they are not prepared to meet the digital skills requirements of the future.

The survey of 23,000 employees and prospective employees across 19 countries examined their readiness to acquire those skills that are often a prerequisite to employment in the digital economy. Only 28 per cent of Canadians rate their digital communication skills as “advanced,” 19 per cent self report an advanced understanding of smart technology, and 16 per cent have expertise in data analytics.

Canada is far from alone in struggling to keep its work force up to date with digital skills training. The countries examined in the study averaged a score of 33 out of 100 in their workplace digital skills readiness. Canada, however, lags behind the international average, with a score of 23.

With the rapid adoption of remote work and transition to a more digital economy during the COVID-19 pandemic, employers are now struggling to find candidates who possess the digital skills they need to keep up. According to a recent study conducted by KPMG, nearly 80 per cent of Canadian business leaders are seeking more workers with digital skills, and 68 per cent are struggling to find candidates with the skills they need to build their business.

“Canada’s standing in the global economy will depend on our ability to fully leverage new and emerging digital technologies,” said Margaret Stuart, country manager for Salesforce Canada. The company provides cloud-based services and software for enterprises, and commissioned the digitals skills survey.

With university tuition on the rise, and technology evolving at a rapid pace, Ms. Stuart believes Canadians need alternatives to the traditional three- or four-year degree. That is why Salesforce Canada is partnering with Seneca College to pilot a micro-credential program in the spring, with plans for a full launch in September. The program offers students the ability to learn digital skills specific to Salesforce’s software, which includes technical training modules and real-world case studies, at a significantly lower cost and time commitment than conventional postsecondary programs.

“The labour shortage is so dramatic, and some of those [educational] barriers can be overlooked, especially in tech-related jobs,” said Gord Smith, a professor at the Seneca College School of Marketing. “If somebody is passionate and if they enthusiastically embrace the skills of a micro-credential, I think [employers] will look at them.”

Seneca has similar partnerships with a range of private-sector employers, and Mr. Smith believes that such collaborations are necessary to ensure that educational programs are directly aligned with business talent needs.

“Businesses who can afford it are solving this problem themselves, going directly to academic institutions, and also recruiting internationally, but I don’t think that’s enough,” said Georgina Black, a managing partner for Deloitte Canada. “Government has a role to play here in creating the conditions for all businesses to be able to benefit from those initiatives.”

In a country where 70 per cent of employees work for small and medium-sized businesses, Ms. Black believes those organizations that don’t have the resources to create such partnerships need greater government support. Governments can also address the digital skills gap and the shortage of technical talent by addressing barriers that keep many under-represented Canadians out of the work force, she said. According to a recent study conducted by Deloitte Canada, there are roughly 1.7 million Canadians who are unable to participate in the digital economy because of such barriers.

“There are certain populations that don’t have access to devices, access to the Internet – from a cost perspective – and this disproportionately affects Indigenous people, low-income seniors, people from diverse backgrounds, low-income [communities], and people in rural areas,” Ms. Black said. “Imagine if companies could tap into that work force, up-skill them, train them, and you suddenly have access to a skilled labour pool.”

Canada has historically relied on immigration and international workers to fill its talent needs. With the demand for digital skills now increasing around the world, however, Ms. Black believes all stakeholders need to work together to develop strategies for keeping Canada’s work force on the cutting edge, and so reduce its dependency on foreign talent.

“You want all of your citizens to be able to participate in society and in the economy, and society and the economy are going to be increasingly digital,” she said. “If we as a country – businesses, individuals, training institutions and government – don’t address this digital skills shortage, it’s only going to get worse over time.”

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