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Roslyn KuninWe have an economy to provide a good living for people. Unfortunately, for many Canadians, our economy is not doing its job.

Income, and especially wealth, are unequally distributed. Too many people don’t have enough work, are poorly paid or have no work at all.

There is a growing gap between what many potential workers have in the way of employment skills and what the 21st century labour market needs. Opportunities for unskilled and lower skilled workers are fast disappearing. Manufacturing jobs have moved offshore and automation is replacing workers at both ends.

At one time, sewing clothes was the stepping stone used by countries in other parts of the world to start on the path out of poverty. Now, machines can recognize and move bits of fabric, cutting the need for a basic sewing machine operator. Even at the professional level, increasing components of accounting, legal research and medical diagnosis can be done by machine.

Not everything can be automated, however. We still need workers to create, maintain and upgrade the various components of hardware and software that keep us in touch and functioning. We still need people to provide services. But most people will need special skills to do these jobs and everyone will need a strong foundation of basic skills, like literacy, numeracy and working well with others to make it in the contemporary world.

A recent report from the Canada West Foundation called Smarten Up shows that 40 percent of workers in western Canada lack the essential skills, such as language, literacy and numeracy, to do their jobs. There is no reason to think that those in central and eastern Canada are doing any better.

These essential employment skills are needed to do the job at a globally competitive level. But even if workers do have the specialized knowledge or technical skills, they may not be able to apply them. Such underqualified people – including half of the workers who did not finish high school and 30 percent of university grads – are found in all occupations and across all levels of education. Those out of work are likely to be even less qualified.

This is a problem both for those who have a job and are muddling through and business. Less capable workers are less productive. They are less able to learn new skills and to adapt to change.

But there are ways to close the skills gap. It is no secret that 16- to 25-year-old workers recently out of school are just as lacking in skills as older colleagues. Educations must begin to ensure that graduates leave with high levels of reading, writing, document use, numeracy, digital technological skills, thinking, oral communication, working with others and a belief in continuous learning.

Employers must begin providing training in these basic skills. A study in the hotel sector found that as little as 20 hours of such training resulted in improved productivity, more job security and higher earnings. While not all employers are large enough to provide training in house, even small employers may find that paying for staff to take upgrading courses on line or in educational institutions will generate benefits for both the company and the worker.

Individuals can improve their employment prospects, their careers and their incomes by both upgrading their skills and considering a wider range of career choices. Women have long been encouraged to move out of traditionally feminine and usually low paying work and to enter higher paying trades. It is now time to encourage men to join the increasing numbers of their male counterparts who, for example, are now registered nurses; a field where there are shortages and salaries have improved. And those whose people skills are stronger than abilities in other areas will prosper best in sales and service jobs.

As machines and automation take over more and more functions, the human touch will be more valued.

Troy Media columnist Roslyn Kunin is a consulting economist and speaker. 

© Troy Media

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