Tradespeople face triple threat of COVID, digitization and shifting economy

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This op-ed was originally published in iPolitics on February 1, 2021. His recent research paper, “Digital Skills Are Critically Important To The Future Success Of Tradespeople,” was produced in partnership with The Future Skills Centre.

Canada has much to learn from international approaches to increasing the accessibility of vocational education and training during the pandemic.

Despite significant disruption by the COVID-19 pandemic, strong demand for skilled tradespeople persists across Canada.

Ongoing demand means the talent development pipeline is more important than ever and Canada’s apprenticeship systems will need to adapt to labour market changes that have been accelerated by the global pandemic. The two top priorities are reducing barriers to digital learning for apprentices and integrating a stronger focus on social and emotional skills development throughout the apprenticeship pathway.

Canada’s apprenticeship systems haven’t been immune from the pandemic. Cancelled work placements have resulted in disruptions to on-the-job learning, unanticipated shifts to online or hybrid training formats, and financial worries. For apprentices who are close to completion, these hurdles are made worse by the uncertainty of entering the labour market during Canada’s economic recovery.

So, how can we ensure that apprentices complete their training and graduate with the skills they need to adapt to recent industrial changes and a post-pandemic labour market?

First, we need to update our thinking about digital skills. Today they are about more than the ability to use computers and other forms of technology. Digital literacy involves a range of cognitive and social and emotional skills that include solving problems in digital environments. Core digital skills now include technical, information management, communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and problem solving.

Second, we need to address barriers to digital skills development. For example, communication skills are becoming increasingly important due to generational differences in communication and work style between apprentices and journeypersons. Apprentices training on the job may prefer to text message or e-mail, whereas journeypersons often prefer verbal communication, resulting in miscommunication and barriers to learning.

Additional barriers to learning digital skills include time, cost, technology adoption and geographic barriers. In other words, the COVID-19 pandemic presents an opportunity to retool apprenticeship training to meet the demands of a digital work world.

But the implications reach beyond digital connectivity in workplaces. In the automotive sector, tradespeople are grappling with future work challenges related to Connectivity, Autonomous, Sharing/Subscription and Electrification (CASE) of vehicles. Manufacturing tradespeople are dealing with robotic welders and other computerized machinery. In the construction trades, there is a growing reliance on automated systems and the Internet of Things (IoT). At the same time, cooks and bakers are grappling with the impact of rational ovens and sous vide methods.

As tradespeople adapt to these changes, they will need 21st Century digital skills. For apprentices in the territories and in rural and remote regions of the provinces, online and hybrid courses may not be accessible due to the lack of affordable or accessible high-speed internet. Canada has much to learn from international approaches to increasing the accessibility of vocational education and training during the pandemic.

To address the digital divide, the Netherlands is offering in-person training in small groups and offering internet access and computer technology at schools for students without sufficient digital resources. They also have an action plan to preserve workplace training. France has taken measures to ensure continuity of in-company training and is providing online vocational training courses for free for a three-month period.

To adapt to these changes and others, our research shows that apprenticeship training must also include a stronger focus on social and emotional skills training and development. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the COVID-19 crisis is likely to impact the frequency of job changes among recent graduates in the five years after graduation. Graduates with more dynamic career trajectories tend to include skills such as communication, teamwork and problem-solving on their LinkedIn profiles.

These in-demand skills are useful for adapting to evolving workplaces and navigating job changes within and across industries. They can also help apprentices adapt to an increasingly diverse workforce.

As young people enter the trades, we need to do a better job of preparing them for classrooms and workplaces that are undergoing social and technological disruption due to the triple threat of COVID-19, digitization and an increasingly dynamic labour market.

COVID-19: Get all the insights

Andrew Bieler

Andrew Bieler

Senior Research Associate

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