By David Lindsay
A diverse group of leaders and thinkers gathered at RBC’s Toronto offices on Tuesday as Ontario universities continued their year-long series of conversations about the future with a discussion about one of the most pressing and crucial issues we face today: youth employment.
John Stackhouse, Senior Vice-President at RBC, hosted the roundtable and was joined by leaders from Canadian Tire, the Trillium Foundation, Next Canada, LinkedIn, MaRS and more. MPP and PC Critic for Postsecondary Education Lorne Coe was also there, along with advisors from the offices of Brad Duguid, Minister of Economic Development and Growth, and Deb Matthews, Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development.
Stackhouse began the afternoon by setting the stakes. “We believe we are at an intersection of history, the intersection of a generational shift that is well underway, and a technological shift that is well underway.” This time of transitions is a challenge, he said, but most of all it’s an opportunity – an opportunity to ensure our youth and children have the tools to capitalize on the changes ahead and thrive in tomorrow’s world.
The conversation for the rest of the afternoon centred on how we can make sure we seize the opportunity and, as many of those around the table put it, “get this right.”
One of the fundamental tasks Ontarians face is ensuring that today’s and tomorrow’s youth have the skills they need to succeed in the workforce. And the first challenge in making that happen, according to almost everyone around the table, is determining exactly what those skills are.
“We are in the age of adaptation,” said Nation Cheong, Director of Youth Initiatives at United Way Toronto, and the skills we teach young people need to reflect that. Ontarians today, Cheong argued, need to be able to develop creative solutions and they need communications and leadership skills to disseminate those solutions and bring people along with them in implementing them.
Over the course of the afternoon, a common thinking started developing around the core skills Ontarians need to thrive in our changing times. Shurjeel Choudhri, Senior Vice-President and Head of Medical and Scientific Affairs at Bayer HealthCare, noted that at his company “essentially everyone works on a cross-functional team.” He highlighted some of the fundamental skills he sees as vital for this kind of workforce: strategic thinking, learning agility, and the ability to distill and communicate information.
Lekan Olawoye, Program Director of Studio Y at MaRS, echoed the importance of adaptability. “Technology is so rapid in its change that we cannot actually keep up with building the skills you need,” he said. That means “we are not going to build the skills for what you need tomorrow, because by the time we get there, it will be something else.”
The need for adaptation was stressed by all sectors in the room. Sarah Harris, Director of Communications for Civic Action, said “we need to make sure HR practice on the ground” reflects today’s realities. That means shifting the emphasis on job postings away from degrees and years of experience. Jamie Cleary, President of the Ontario Undergraduate Students Association (and a soon-to-be university graduate – a fact he cleverly pointed out to the room full of employers), argued that there needs to be “adaptability from employers to look at a diverse skill set and looking at how a student is able to apply those and adapt.” Jake Hirsch-Allen, the Higher Ed Lead for Canada at Lynda.com and LinkedIn, similarly stressed that, increasingly, young people today have untraditional career paths where they hold numerous jobs at once or several in sequence. Employers should understand that in the “gig economy” what might have once been viewed as “precarious employment” should be seen as adaptability in an employee, and therefore a virtue.
Universities, who were represented in the room by leaders from York University, the University of Guelph, University of Ontario Institute for Technology and Wilfrid Laurier University, also heard that adapting to change is a fact of life in today’s world. As skills upgrading becomes increasingly necessary and as experiential learning becomes a bigger part of a university education, flexibility will be paramount to offering the programs and classes that students need to achieve their full success.
So how exactly do we achieve this adaptability and give students these skills? There were a number of solutions and ideas thrown around during the roundtable, including experiential learning, skills retraining programs and improving students’ ability to articulate their experience. But what emerged clearly is that the path to implementing any of them requires collaboration between students, industries, universities, colleges and government.
MPP Coe told the room that while travelling to campuses across the province he repeatedly heard the call for greater collaboration. Employers and educators have to “go hand-in-hand to move this young person through the learning journey,” said Olawoye of Studio Y. William Gage, Associate Vice-President, Teaching and Learning at York University, noted that establishing greater understanding between employers and universities is vital because “we’re both stakeholders in a student’s life.”
As the roundtable closed, there was a sense of work left to be done, but also of tremendous hope and possibility. Hamoon Ekhtiari, Founder and Managing Partner of Audacious Futures, emphasized that the goal here is “young people succeeding and realizing their full potential.” Throughout the afternoon, Ontario’s universities heard a number of great ideas for how to help students thrive in today’s changing world. And we would love to hear more. Please share your thoughts with us either by filling out our survey or by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Together we can create a better future for all Ontarians.
President and CEO
Council of Ontario Universities