Building Digital Skills for Tomorrow


Context

The rapid development and adoption of digital technologies is changing the way we work and communicate. Firms have recognized the need to embrace technology in order to remain competitive in the global marketplace; artistic creators have embraced digital technologies to enhance their art; and individuals have recognized the value of technology to become effectively connected. Creating the right conditions for a world-class digital economy will require digital skills for all Canadians.

Arguably the backbone of the digital economy is a strong, globally competitive information and communications technology sector. For a strong ICT sector, it is essential that Canada have a sufficient quantity of qualified ICT workers across occupations and geographical regions. But, ICT workers are not alone in grappling with the effects of advances in digital technologies. The entire workforce, from highly skilled scientists to production line workers, is increasingly affected by rapid changes in the use of digital technology in the workplace.

These advances in technology are having profound impacts on Canada's learning system, both how we teach and how we learn. The Internet, social media and virtual realities have opened up new channels for learning. But, there are concerns that a digital skills divide is emerging, where some groups have less access to new technology and are falling behind in their adoption of digital skills.37 This is of particular concern because effective participation in the labour market is increasingly linked to digital competence.

What are Digital Skills?

While there is no standard or agreed upon definition, digital skills can be understood as the ability to locate, organize, understand, evaluate, create and share information using digital technology.* It involves a knowledge of current communications technology and an understanding of how it can be used. Digital skills are a suite of skills that help Canadians connect in today's world and function in the labour market of today and tomorrow.

* Adapted from a definition for digital literacy in Educational Testing Service, Digital Transformation: A Framework for Digital Literacy — A Report of the International ICT Literacy Panel, 2002.


How are Digital Skills Measured Internationally?

Efforts are currently being made by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to gather information globally on digital skills. The Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) survey will be conducted in 2011 to assess how adults of working age are able to apply their technological competence in workplace and social situations.*

*Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, 2010.

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Challenges

For Canada to become a leader in the digital economy, digital skills development must be fostered in all Canadians. Digital skills are important, not only for the ICT sector, but for the entire workforce, as well as all other Canadians, be they homemakers, students or seniors.

A significant challenge in determining if Canadians have the skills and competencies required for the digital economy is a lack of a precise understanding of what digital skills are, and how Canada is faring in this regard compared to its competitors.

Addressing Skills Shortages in the ICT Sector

Focusing first on the ICT sector, over the past several years, employers have reported difficulty in recruiting skilled ICT workers. As mentioned in a previous chapter on growing the ICT sector, despite a downturn in ICT employment since mid-2008, skills shortages continue in some areas. In many cases, these skill shortages are more related to workers not possessing the right combination of specific skills and experience required by Canadian employers, rather than a lack of formal qualifications. Solving these ongoing skill shortages will require a range of integrated and targeted efforts coordinated across government, industry and education partners.

A significant gender imbalance also exists in the ICT workforce; women are fewer than one-quarter of workers in ICT occupations. Similarly, Aboriginal Canadians are under-represented in ICT occupations, comprising just 1 % of workers in 2006. A digital strategy needs to seek opportunities to increase the participation of under-represented groups, particularly through encouraging more post-secondary enrolment in ICT-related programs.

In the short-term, the Government of Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program has responded to the skills needs of the ICT industry by facilitating the entry of temporary foreign workers for several ICT fields. In 2006, there were 4663 temporary work permits issued for ICT occupations, 7092 in 2007, and 11 845 in 2008.

A longer-term solution to ICT skills gaps will require a focused and sophisticated strategy that could combine at least three components:

  1. Expand post-secondary programs that combine ICT with other fields, and increase the role of co-op and internship placements;
  2. Expand programs to integrate under-represented groups and internationally educated professionals; and
  3. Strengthen opportunities for continuing professional development of ICT workers currently in the workforce.38

As a component of the longer-term solution, permanent immigration will be key to the health of the ICT sector's labour force. In 2006, internationally educated professionals (IEPs) accounted for 14 % of workers in ICT occupations.39 However, several factors suggest that integration and retention are issues.

The Government of Canada's Sector Council Program (SCP) will also continue to be part of the strategy to address skills issues through its support of the two industry driven sector councils that address human resource issues in the digital economy: the Information and Communication Technology Council (ICTC) and the Cultural Human Resources Council (CHRC).

The ICTC, and its promising Focus on Information Technology (FIT) project, is one example of how this federal program works in partnership with provinces and territories to provide grade 11 and 12 students with a foundation of technical, business, and interpersonal skills and the option of direct access to the workplace.

The CHRC also supports skills development in the digital arena. In 2008, the CHRC produced the Canadian Digital Media Content Creation Technology Road Map, which identified a number of high priority technology projects to assist Canadian digital media content creators in meeting human resource demands. The CHRC has developed a competency chart and profile for new media content creators that assist youth and other job seekers in making career choices.

Improving Digital Skills in Workplaces Across the Economy

The ability of Canadian businesses to innovate and position themselves along the global value chain will depend heavily on investments made in ICT platforms, the success of which, in turn, depends on workers having the appropriate skills.

SMEs are likely to face the greatest challenge both in financial capacity to invest in ever-changing newer ICT technologies and in the capacity to support workplace training for these technologies. Effective SME participation in the new digital marketplace will involve ongoing up-skilling and training.

Large employers and institutions will face their own challenges in terms of digital up-skilling. For example, in the health sector, steps need to be taken to ensure that large scale investments in electronic health information systems are not undermined by a shortfall in the supply of health informatics and health information management professionals.40

In sectors undergoing economic restructuring, particularly automobile manufacturing and forestry, there is ongoing, large-scale displacement of workers in need of reintegration into the workforce. Many of the job losses have occurred among older and lower-skilled workers. Transitioning these workers to new employment will require programs that support digital skills.

Narrowing the Digital Skills Divide

As Canada builds towards a world-class digital economy, it is essential that all Canadians have the skill sets to be able to access, use and interpret a growing and increasingly complex range of digital information. The benefits of obtaining digital skills extend beyond improved work and learning outcomes presenting opportunities for improvements to our quality of life. Technology is pervasive in our society, intertwined in a range of everyday activities, and those with impediments are at a disadvantage as it can lead to a lack of access to information, government services, health care and education.

Emerging Digital Skills Divide

International and Canadian evidence suggests the existence of a digital skills divide.*

*Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and Statistics Canada, Learning a Living: First Results of the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey, 2005.

A Statistics Canada report on Internet use rates echoes the international evidence in indicating that digital experience in Canada varies by income, education and age.41 Essential skills, such as literacy, are also strongly connected with digital abilities, and improving essential skills will be a key part in assuring that Canadians have adequate skills.

The Government of Canada's Office of Literacy and Essential Skills (OLES) works with a wide range of partners to improve the literacy and essential skills (LES) of adult Canadians to help them enter the workforce, to succeed and make transitions in the workplace, and to contribute to their communities and families. The mandate of OLES complements provincial and territorial investments in education and training through research on what works, the development of tools and the promotion of partnerships.

Technology advances, and in particular social networking, have the ability to enhance learning through the use of new media. Social networking can change both formal and self-directed learning through improved communication and collaboration. The positive implications of this are far reaching, from improved classroom learning to better workplace training. But, there is also a risk that the gap in skills could grow as the process of learning is increasingly connected to digital competence. People of all ages will have to be sufficiently competent, digitally and otherwise, to be aware of their learning opportunities, and have the ability to access and leverage them quickly and efficiently. Those who are not digitally savvy may fall behind.

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Discussion Questions

Training and learning is a complex area of shared federal and provincial/territorial jurisdiction. While the provinces and territories have primary responsibility for training and education, the Government of Canada has overarching responsibility to ensure Canada's economic security and prosperity by: growing the labour force by reducing barriers; improving the quality of the labour force by supporting skills development; and enhancing labour market efficiency through facilitating labour mobility and adjustment.

To further inform the policy directions of the Government of Canada in improving the quantity, quality, and efficiency of the workforce in the area of digital skills, we are seeking your feedback on the following questions:

  • What do you see as the most critical challenges in skills development for a digital economy?
  • What is the best way to address these challenges?
  • What can we do to ensure that labour market entrants have digital skills?
  • What is the best way to ensure the current workforce gets the continuous up-skilling required to remain competitive in the digital economy? Are different tactics required for SMEs versus large enterprises?
  • How will the digital economy impact the learning system in Canada? How we teach? How we learn?
  • What strategies could be employed to address the digital divide?
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Notice

The public consultation period ended on July 13, 2010, at which time this website was closed to additional comments and submissions.

Between May 10 and July 13, more than 2010 Canadian individuals and organizations registered to share their ideas and submissions. You can read their contributions—and the comments from other users—in the Submissions Area and the Idea Forum.