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Skilling Employers for Leadership in an AI-Driven Economy

By Dane Ferry, Employer Navigation Analyst

Artificial intelligence (AI) is changing how Canadians live and work. We are immersed in an AI based world, accentuated by social media, chatbots, voice assistants and smart devices.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is changing how Canadians live and work. We are immersed in an AI based world, accentuated by social media, chatbots, voice assistants and smart devices. AI also has the capacity to change almost everything about how we work.


At CCYP, we endeavor to understand the impact AI has on employers and the employment ecosystems they operate within - how they make decisions; how they hire; how they create; how they engage with one another and how it helps them engage with youth workers and audiences. In order to do that, we must examine the history of AI in Canada, its role and what employers need to understand to become more agile in how they adapt to changes in automation.


Canada’s AI sector is rooted in decades of innovation. Breakthroughs in processing power, data management and infrastructure design proved the practical commercial value of AI: machine learning and deep learning in particular.


In its 2017 budget, the federal government announced the $125-million Pan-Canadian AI Strategy, the world’s first national AI strategy (Ticoll, 2020). This program sought to elevate public-private-academic sector investments in research centers in places like Montreal, Toronto, Edmonton and elsewhere.


The strategy inspired a fertile ecosystem of AI start-ups, scale-ups and global firms (Ticoll, 2020). Canada is a recognized innovating force in the design and construction of technologies and infrastructure AI applications supercharging the foundation of an AI-driven economy. But how does Canada's investment in AI compare to the rest of the world?


Across the mainstream economy, Canada lags compared to its peer countries in AI adoption and employment capacity development. Few Canadian companies, educators, policymakers and career professionals understand AI’s capabilities and limitations. A 2018 Deloitte study of AI-engaged executives in seven leading countries found (Wyskiel, 2021):


  • Canada ranked last in employer recognition of the strategic importance of AI to business success

  • Canadian executives displayed lack of trust in the technology with 48 per cent of Canada’s early AI adopters citing “making the wrong strategic choice based on AI recommendations” as a top-three AI risk

  • Just 51 per cent of Canadian executives believed AI would transform their company over the next three years (tied for the lowest rate among countries surveyed)

  • Only 25 per cent of employers embed AI into their products and services (the lowest rate)


Are employers wrong for feeling this way? What is the imperative for a country like Canada to aggressively adopt AI in the context of a globalized economy? Generative AI can be very powerful when used correctly and responsibly. It enables businesses to be significantly more efficient, productive and competitive.


These are big gains to be won, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. predicted in a recent study that generative AI could disrupt more than 300 million jobs across major economies (Wells, 2023). Automation frees up workers to take on other tasks which gives them time to focus on more resource intensive efforts.


As a result, global gross domestic product could grow seven per cent over a decade. That might be a conservative estimate. PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP estimates AI as a whole could raise global GDP by 26 per cent by 2030 — an additional CA $20.9 Trillion (Rao, 2017).


Everyone from big banking’s Toronto Dominion Bank (TD Canada Trust) to small call centers such as Blue Ocean Outsourcing in Halifax is using AI to streamline customer service, enhance mobile applications and to automate their self-serve IT infrastructure (Lindzon, 2023).


Still, business leaders in Canada have expressed the sentiment that adopting AI is going to remain difficult due to the perception that the labour market lacks skilled workers that know how to work with AI. To overcome this perception gap, here are the 3 considerations we think employers should prioritize when adopting AI into their existing frameworks.


  • Don’t overestimate AI: Today’s AI is powerful but limited. It exceeds human capabilities in narrow, well defined domains such as health diagnosis, risk assessment, machine translation, robotics, and simulations. But make no mistake, AI is still in its early days, and as it evolves the technology will likely surprise us.


It will certainly get better at learning and reducing functions of work that are less desirable for Canadians such as automating dangerous or unsafe initiatives and reducing repetitive, benign work traditionally done by people.


AI is often oversold. AI lacks “common sense” - emotionally informed self-awareness - an understanding of cause and effect that can impede decision making. Every AI tool currently deployed is designed to focus on a narrow topic/function/process such as face recognition or customer interaction.


AI also entails risks and challenges, including the displacement of skills and jobs, bias, deception, data control and privacy, military and social control, and economic inequality.


  • Screen for AI and Digital Literacy in Your Current and Future Workforce - These days, most young Canadians are armed with basic AI literacy, job-relevant AI skills, and awareness of how to maximize its benefits and deal with its risks and pitfalls. The demand for these sills is already increasing - since 2015, Canadian AI job postings increased by nearly 500% across a broad range of sectors (Zubairi, 2017).


When employers are screening for AI skills, they should determine them based on the nature of the work that is being performed in relation to digital literacy. We can break down the need for different types of digital literacy skills into three categories. Employers can use this to gauge the level of digital literacy required for the types of work they are hiring for (Cannexus, 2023):


  • Basic (required for about 80% of positions)

    • Web navigation

    • Digital communication

    • File sharing and storage

  • Moderate (required for about 15% of positions)

    • Machine learning

    • Data Analytics

    • Predictive modeling

  • Advanced (required for about 5% of positions)

    • Data Science

    • Computer Science/Programming

    • AI engineering and Cloud Design


  • Don’t be afraid to expand digital literacy requirements: As tools become more sophisticated, employers may need to increase their requirements from one AI skill to several and the need to move beyond basic digital literacy will be realized.


Essential skills, particularly in communication and collaboration along with complex cognitive skills such as research, problem solving, creativity and planning will also become a learning priority for workers and leaders when this happens.


As we can see, there is a rapidly growing employer demand for AI skills; but the demand is still ill distributed across sectors in Canada. We can also see that the skills employers seek are not always the ones they need for contemporary workforce design. This must change for Canada to compete and grow sustainably just within the next decade.


Now is the time to take deliberate actions to ensure every organization has the understanding they need to excel in an increasingly AI driven world.


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