Digital skills and digital careers are part of every industry’s future. Yet employers say they can't find workers with the information and communication technology (ICT) skills they need. In this report, Shortt, Robson and Sabat explain how Canada doesn't really have system for figuring out where digital technology jobs end and regular jobs begin – and explore how a shared definitions of digital skills and careers will be the gateway for policymakers and employers to fill any gaps.

Key takeaways

  1. Canada’s language to describe occupations in the labour market leaves out or mixes up many digital skills, competencies, tools and jobs. This could be stifling Canada’s economic growth and innovation. Without an agreed-upon definition of digital skills, it’s hard to hire the right people.
  2. The under-employment of skilled immigrants (not to mention under-representation of women and other groups) in the ICT industry suggests that recruitment and retention policies and practices of the very firms complaining about this gap may be contributing to the problem.

Executive summary

Digital skills are increasingly in demand across many industries. Recent industry reports argue that a shortage of people in the workforce skilled in information and communications technology (ICT) is inhibiting the growth of innovative companies around the world. Some argue that in Canada, this global challenge is exacerbated by Canadian firms’ historic tendency to adopt new technologies at a slower than average speed — a hesitancy many argue is itself the result of previous shortages of skilled technology workers.

While the origins and extent of the “digital skills gap” may be the source of some disagreement, this paper argues that the existence of this gap is real, provided a gap is understood as a lack of candidates with the skills required by particular employers. Critically, however, its causes may be more complex than are commonly understood. For example, the under-employment of skilled immigrants and under-representation of women and other groups in the ICT industry suggests that recruitment and retention policies and practices of the very firms complaining about this gap may be contributing to the problem.

While there are multiple pathways to “digital careers,” accessing them requires innovation in skills development and in approaches to defining these roles. Yet a review of the most relevant digital skills frameworks shows there is little common understanding of the actual skills or knowledge that contribute to the skills gap; little common understanding of the dimensions of learning and training needed to improve it; muddled distinctions between areas of knowledge, competencies, skills and tools needed for 21st-century learning or work; and very little identification of skill levels.

In Canada, the National Occupational Classification (NOC) system provides standardized language to describe occupations in the Canadian labour market. But in this classification system, as in others, there is often confusion between a job, the skills and competencies needed to perform the job, and the specific tools and techniques needed for the job. Moreover, the NOC’s usefulness is also somewhat limited in the context of digital skills, as it has not kept pace with the emergence of technology-based occupations, such as cloud engineer, nor has it developed a clear way of including hybrid roles.

Opening new pathways to digital skills, especially for those who are currently under-represented, will require the development of a better understanding around the deployment, monitoring and assessment of emerging approaches to digital skills identification, development and employment. Standard definitions and approaches need to be identified, established and supported. We need better case studies to appreciate the effects of innovative approaches to developing and recruiting digital talent including inclusive training and recruitment practices; reconsidering credentials and assessment; and new forms of training and upskilling. Our approach to developing and applying digital skills will need to evolve, but for this evolution to be successful, we first need to understand what works, what is not working, and how to use inclusion to expand the talent pool.

Read the full report