Canadian job skills mismatch: truth or science fiction?

When science fiction writer Karl Schroeder was growing up in Brandon, Man., his dad got into a profession that everyone said would be the job of the future: repairing televisions. Within 10 years, it was a job of the past

Canada's job numbers come out today. But can they say what jobs will be important in 10 years

One of the jobs of the future identified by Canada's Career 2030 program is robot counsellor. (Photo courtesy Canadian Scholarship Trust Plan)

When award-winning Canadian science fiction writer Karl Schroeder was growing up in Brandon, Man., his dad got into a profession that everyone said would be the job of the future: repairing televisions.

Within 10 years, it was a job of the past. 

That’s why Schroeder laughs when he hears about the debate over the skills mismatch in the Canadian workforce.

Schroeder's day job is as a senior foresight strategist at Idea Couture, a booming consulting firm in an old glass factory in the heart of Toronto's Chinatown.

One of his recent projects has been trying to imagine what kind of jobs kids of today can expect to be doing when they grow up. And he says it’s harder than you might imagine.

"If I want to speculate wildly about the future, I have my science fiction," says Schroeder, whose latest novel, Lockstep, hit bookstores last week. “Anybody who tells you they can predict the future is either crazy or lying."

Science fiction writer and futurist Karl Schroeder: "Anybody who tells you they can predict the future is either crazy or lying." (DoMing Lum)

Idea Couture's entire business is based on jobs that didn't exist when Schroeder was a boy. With branch offices in Mexico City, London and Dubai, the Toronto-based firm keeps 200 people busy helping companies deal with an uncertain future.

One of its latest projects, Careers2030, is an effort to help parents saving for their children's education imagine what kind of jobs the future will hold.

Tele-surgeon. Localizer. Makeshift structure engineer. Rewilder. Garbage designer. Robot counsellor. These aren’t your daddy's jobs. The proposed professions of 2030 sound a bit like wild speculation, but Schroeder says the intent is to open people's eyes to how different the job market will be less than two decades from now.

Predicting the skills we will need in the future has always been a mug's game, says Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, a consultancy that advises universities, governments and the World Bank.

"I mostly make my living off the fact that nobody remembers more than eight, nine, 10 years back," says Usher. "We've been through all these issues before."

Every few years, the federal government produces the Canadian Occupational Projection System (COPS), an attempt to forecast the country's job and education requirements a decade ahead. Usher says that besides broad predictions such as the expanding retail and service sectors and shrinking manufacturing, COPS has an impossible task.

He says forecasting what he calls "the big game changers" is virtually impossible. "I don't think anyone could have predicted the app economy in 2004 if you were looking out 10 years," says Usher.

He says governments always like to get involved, sometimes to their cost. He points to former Ontario Premier Mike Harris' Doubling the Pipeline strategy to increase the number of computer graduates. "Those people graduated into the biggest tech bust in history," says Usher, arriving in the job market just at the beginning of the dot-com collapse.

Sherry Weaver, associate dean of teaching and learning at the Haskayne School of Business, did some related research that looked into the rapidly changing world of medical specializations.

"Many years ago, the world was screaming that we wouldn't have enough cardiac surgeons," says Weaver. So a training program began.

"As you know, it takes decades to become a cardiac surgeon. By the time all these brand new recruits went through, we had a massive change in how we treat heart disease."

As it turns out, stents were in. Cardiac surgery was out.

Despite falling job vacancy numbers, labour shortages do exist in certain occupations. They are just not as widespread as some have implied. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

The huge public investment in training the wrong kind of medical workers may have been a waste, but sometimes, training too many specialists can boost the economy.

Ultimately, all those cheap computer grads created by Mike Harris had a positive effect, says Usher.

"People don't like to say this out loud, but the reason you put public money into [education and training], the public return on skills, is in part because skills become cheaper," says Usher. "Software engineers around 2003, 2004 — oh my god, were they cheap!"

That's not encouraging for anyone launching themselves into years of advanced study in a profession that is currently in demand. But Usher says students are not stupid. They will adjust their skills to meet the economy’s needs.

Adapting to the labour market is something that Sherry Weaver understands. She started out in engineering before becoming a school teacher and then a university professor.

"If there is one thing that we could teach, it’s the ability to adapt," says Weaver. "That's probably the biggest skill set that we can give our kids, and that will allow them to be able to move seamlessly from one profession to another."

On his way to becoming a successful science fiction writer, Karl Schroeder says he went through "probably a dozen" different careers.

Like Weaver, he says uncertainty and flexibility is the only thing we can predict for certain.

"The one thing we know about the future is that it will not be like today," says Schroeder. "I don't think that people should be too anxious about not knowing what they are going to do in the future, because we really can't know."

Schroeder offers a few rules of thumb. Don't plan to do things a computer can do better. And work on interpersonal skills, because so long as humans continue to exist, those qualities will always be valuable.

"What you can try and do is ensure that you are as resilient as you can be and that you have the broad set of flexible skills that allow you to take advantage of an opportunity when it comes along."

Because whether next year, five years from now or in the year 2030, the skills mismatch will always be with us.


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.