The future-ready workforce series - Upskilling to prepare for the future of work

Wednesday, November 17, 2021 12:00 pm - 1:00 pm EST (GMT -05:00)
Two males looking at a computer

As today’s workforce shifts, organizations face an urgent need to upskill their teams to create opportunities for valued existing employees to take on new roles and functions. Equipping employees with new knowledge and skills to adapt to changes within their current role will be key for businesses to remain competitive and agile as the demand for new capabilities increases. It can also help avoid critical skills gaps as globalization, digitization and accelerated automation impact current and future challenges at work.

This presentation is the fourth and final event in a multi-part Future-Ready Workforce Series from the University of Waterloo's Work-Learn Institute, created to highlight how employers are upskilling their teams to adapt to a rapidly changing labour market. With access to new research insights from Waterloo experts, as well as student and employer guest speakers, this session emphasizes how to be future-ready in an evolving world of work. It also provides insights on how organizations can identify future-ready skills, upskill employees to enable professional and career development and rethink training programs to prepare for the future of work.

Identifying future-ready skills

Before we can ensure our teams are ready for the future of work, it’s important to understand the key skills that workers will need to navigate and thrive in an ever-changing labour market. But how can organizations identify the most in-demand skills?

At the University of Waterloo, we began by analyzing more than 74,000 job postings to determine the most in-demand, required skills sought by co-op employers. That analysis showed a heightened focus on uniquely human talents and capabilities (some organizations may recognize these as soft skills), such as communication, problem solving and interpersonal skills. These uniquely human talents and capabilities were often paired with more in-demand technical skills, such as software development, data analysis and machine learning. From there, we undertook a large research project to identify and validate the key competencies that will be required to remain competitive in the workforce.

Through a review of the existing literature, an analysis of numerous competency frameworks, and consultation with students, faculty and employers, we established the Future Ready Talent Framework as a way for our students and employers to understand, identify and practice the skills needed to succeed in the future of work.

In other sectors, there’s similar focus on enabling the workforce with opportunities to learn, apply and adapt quickly through experience and practice on enduring capabilities like imagination, empathy, curiosity and critical thinking.

If organizations can embrace, cultivate and nurture these enduring human capabilities, they will be well-positioned to gain a strategic advantage in the years to come. Their workforces will have the capabilities to sense and respond to change and to rapidly learn the skills needed to continue moving forward and thriving in an environment of relentless disruption.

Academics, for me, is where I’ve been able to form my foundational knowledge and basic technical skills, while work terms have really enabled me to gain practical and hands-on learning experiences. It allows me to make mistakes, establish competencies and figure out what I like the most. My work terms have also enabled me to build valuable non-technical skills. This epitomizes the value of future-ready skills since they can be applied to any job in our workforce.


Upskilling talent to enable professional and career development

As we build our understanding of the key competencies required to thrive in a complex future of work, it’s important for us to think about the ways in which we can upskill our existing workforce with those key competencies.

The Work-Learn Institute (WxL) recently completed a literature review on the future of work to identify some of the existing trends that we expect to grow in the future workforce. Those key themes for the future of work were released in our whitepaper, Preparing for the Future of Work through Work-Integrated Learning:

  • Advances in technology
  • Skill agility and transferability
  • Responsibility for adaptation
  • Fostering equity, diversity and inclusion
  • Gig economy and precarious work
  • Employee vs. organizational values

When we think about creating a sustainable workforce for today and tomorrow, it’s also important to acknowledge that the future of workplace learning and professional development is continuous and human-centric.

By creating a workplace that balances education, experience, environment and exposure, organizations can vary the ways in which they upskill team members:

  • Incorporate forms of experiential learning that connect human emotion and relevant experiences, which is important for committing learning to memory.
  • Use work-integrated learning to provide opportunities for employees to develop their skills during day-to-day work – making learning more applicable and efficient.
  • Blend a mix of digital and hands-on experiences to ensure learning is more accessible and scalable.
  • Offer professional and personal development that contributes to workers’ ongoing future employability, ensuring that workers can perceive their learning as valuable and help them remain relevant in an evolving world of work.

As many of you know and will be experiencing right now, it’s important for us to think about the ways in which we need to upskill our existing workforce to help then navigate the future of work. While many of us have been anticipating change for quite some time, COVID-19 has thrust us directly into conditions that highlight a greater need to adapt and prepare in order to sustain and succeed.


Rethinking training programs to prepare teams for the future of work

To meet the upskilling demands of the future of work, organizations and institutions must think deeply and critically about how we train our teams. What worked in the past simply will not be agile enough to adapt to the current rate of change. That’s why we need to think more holistically about training and development and move away from the idea that training on specific technologies or processes is the most efficient way for our workforce to endure. 

Globally, we are experiencing a skills shortage. To establish a solution among our emerging talent, the University of Waterloo began to examine how certain models of work-integrated learning, including opportunities for skills development and upskilling, could intervene to improve unemployment – and subsequently, the resulting underemployment – of the younger talent within our institution. The result? The Waterloo Experience (WE) Accelerate Program.

It’s challenging to understand the skills workers will need to support future business strategies, especially when it comes to determining existing skills gaps. It’s also difficult to identify which skills and capabilities are top priority, and whether to build those skills and capabilities in-house, recruit them in the market, or hire them temporarily as they’re needed.

Building an environment around work experiences – or creating a learning environment that combines elements of upskilling – is something more organizations need to consider as they adapt to the changes happening in our workforce. 

Academic institutions or other upskilling experts (including industry partners) can offer support for organizations wanting to build specialty knowledge and enduring capabilities among their teams. And once your teams have had opportunities for upskilling, you can begin to think about how to transition them to new roles where they can share their skills and expertise with incoming or existing talent. 

What these rapid shifts in our workforce have done for employers is create not just a skills emergency, but a talent emergency. What becomes super critical is accessing skills and talent in a way that brings new candidates into your work force on an accelerated path, but with time to proficiency, which is where work-integrated learning can drive value for an organization.


Improving upskilling in your workplace

Here are the top three ways you can start thinking about improving the way you upskill talent in your workplace today:

  1. Look for opportunities to develop ensuring skills and capabilities, including a variety of technical and human-centred skills.
  2. Train your talent through workplace experiences, considering environment and exposure, along with work-integrated learning and opportunities for continuous or lifelong learning.
  3. Consider partnerships for upskilling and reskilling programs, such as post-secondary institutions, upskilling professionals, or other businesses in your professional network who have implemented successful programs.

Watch this presentation!

This program has been approved for Continuing Professional Development (CPD) hours under Category A of the Continuing Professional Development (CPD) Log of the Human Resource Professionals Association (HRPA). You may manually log this webinar in your CPD Log.

Remote video URL

Breakout sessions 

As part of this online event, subject matter experts, including industry leaders and University of Waterloo students and staff, hosted two breakout sessions to further explore the key topics covered in our keynote presentation.

How project-based learning can prepare teams for the future of work

How to upskill emerging talent to create an engaging work term