Skills for the future: Digital competence will be essential

By Steve Gahbauer   

Industry MRO Manufacturing maintenance manufacturing skills Technologies

Canada continues to lag in development efforts.

Young plant workers getting metallurgy training. PHOTO: ADOBE STOCK

Maintenance is constantly changing, driven by emerging technologies. What does not change are the basic issues that force maintenance pros to adjust their thinking and approach the work. Case in point: skills and job training.

Much has been written about the lack of appropriate skills development for plant operators and maintenance professionals. There are many obstacles – including political lack of will and corresponding support – although Switzerland and Germany have come up with successful solutions. Governments, businesses and schools partner to combine classroom and workplace learning.

In this country, the struggle to find our way continues. Despite plenty of debates and some good will, nothing much has changed. This lack of progress is exacerbated by today’s evolving work environment. More sensor capabilities and digital technologies demand education and training on a more inclusive level.

Over the next decade, close to half of Canadian jobs will undergo massive change in the type of skills needed. Digital competencies will be essential to pretty much all of the new jobs. Indeed, Kevin Peesker, the president of Microsoft Canada, says it doesn’t matter how advanced the tools are if maintenance professionals don’t have the technical talent and digital savvy to use them.


“We often talk about the digital skills gap, projected by the Information and Communications Technology Council, that declares that by 2020 more than 200,000 jobs will go unfilled because of it. We need to invest in Canada’s digital workforce for the most in-demand skills,” Peesker says. In 2019, some 40% of digital transformation initiatives will use artificial intelligence (AI), and 75% of enterprise applications will use it by 2021.

On the positive side, efforts are underway to attract young people to trades. Skills Ontario, a non-profit organization based in Waterloo, Ont., educates and empowers youth, including women and Indigenous youngsters, to consider a career in skilled trades and technologies. CEO Ian Howcroft says the skills shortage has been a shared concern among industrial and manufacturing sectors for decades.

“We want to forge partnerships that will allow us to leverage resources to create an environment that promotes and values skilled workers. Things have improved and people are supporting our goal, but much more needs to be done.”

That includes preparing the future workforce for jobs that don’t yet exist. Steven Murphy, president and vice-chancellor of the Ontario Tech University in Oshawa, Ont., warns artificial intelligence, robotics and other emerging technologies will dramatically alter established tasks performed by humans.

Digital transformation

A recent report by McKinsey & Co. states about 60% of all occupations – including maintenance technicians – handle at least 30% of the activities that can be automated. The report predicts automation could affect 50% of the world economy.

The good news is this digital transformation will also add new jobs to the economy. The Royal Bank of Canada’s (RBC’s)year-long research project to better understand Canada’s skills economy used a set of algorithms to examine more than 2 million job postings across 300 occupations. The study makes it clear global thinking will be in demand, and Canadians must be capable of moving between occupations, as old jobs give way to the new.

A new type of engineer is needed to deal with the challenges of a rapidly changing industrial world. Educational institutions and industry must quickly adapt training to meet this demand, says Philippe Tanguy, the CEO of Polytechnique in Montreal. Future engineers will have to be more innovative, and teaching methods must shift in the next decade to include entrepreneurship to ensure a relevant, professional education.

Employers also need to allocate more resources and strategic thinking to talent issues and demand more flexibility from colleges and universities to help with life-long learning, adds John Stackhouse, RBC’s senior vice-president, office of the CEO.

Much has been written about the future of work and its risks. The tasks are daunting, but there are also tremendous opportunities. Companies in Germany and Switzerland take a much bigger share of responsibility for apprenticeship training. We can learn from their successful approach.

Steve Gahbauer is an engineer, a Toronto-based business writer and a regular contributing editor. E-mail

This article originally appeared in the July-August 2019 print issue of PLANT Magazine.



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