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Bridging the Digital Skills Gap: Alternative Pathways

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Key Takeaways

It’s clear the digital skills gap is real, in the sense that there’s a lack of candidates with the skills required by particular employers. That said, there’s little common understand of the actual skills or knowledge that contribute to the skills gap and what’s needed to improve it. To develop good policy to address this problem, there’s a need to develop clarity and consistency in defining jobs and skills as well as innovation in skill development programming and changes to how employers hire, including considering women and skilled immigrants more often than they do now.


The shortage of skilled information and communications technology (ICT) talent in the technology sector is a major issue hampering the growth of innovative companies in Canada.


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.


It’s difficult to agree on what the digital skills gaps mean and how to solve them, since everyone uses overlapping definitions of skills, competencies, and knowledge.

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’ historically tendency to adopt new technologies at a slower than average speed—a hesitancy which 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 alack 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 firmscomplaining about this gap may be contributing to the problem.
Whilethere are multiple pathways to “digital careers”,accessing themrequires innovation in skills development and in approaches to defining these roles.Yet a review of the most relevant digital skills frameworks shows that there is little common understanding of the actual skills or knowledge that contribute to the skills gap; littlecommon understanding of the dimensions of learning and training needed to improve it; muddled distinctionsbetween areas of knowledge, competencies, skills,and tools needed for 21st-century learning or work; andvery 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 confusionbetween a job, the skills and competencies needed to perform the job,and the specific tools and techniques needed for thejob.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.


Denise Shortt

Vice-President, Industry Development and Diversity & Inclusion, ITAC

Denise Shortt

Denise is a Harvard-educated writer and researcher specializing in gender and diversity, entrepreneurship and innovation, and technology in Education. Co-author of two business books, Technologywith Curves: Women Reshaping the Digital Landscape (HarperCollins, 2000) and Innovation Nation: Canadian Leadership from Java to Jurassic Park (Wiley & Sons, 2002) and contributed to From the Trenches: Strategies from Industry Leaders on the New e-Economy(Wiley 2001). A former researcher at Ryerson University’s School of Information Technology Management, she is also the Co-founder and former President of Wired Woman Toronto, a non-profit educational technology organization. Denise was recently honoured with an Excellence in Leadership Award for her work as a Champion of Women’s Advancement by Women in Communications and Technology (WCT). Denise has a Master’s in Education (Technology) from Harvard University and studied gender and technology at M.I.T.

Brian Robson

Director of Training Programs and Business Development, Ryerson University

Brian Robson

Brian is Director, Business Development & Training Programs at Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute. He has been leading the ADaPT (Advanced Digital and Professional Training) Program at Ryerson since 2015, along with other empowerment projects such as the Women’s Entrepreneurship Hub.Previous roles include clergy, high school teacher, college instructor, and employee benefits broker.His passion is shaping emergingleaders and teams in a changing economy. He earned a PhD in Systematic Theology from the University of Toronto, and an MBA (Globalization) from Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University.His MBA research looked at the impact of leadership selection on organizational culture, and the subsequent effects on attracting and retaining young talent. Brian has delivered papers on ADaPT and skills training at both national and international conferences.

Magdalena Sabat

Senior Research Associate, Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University

Magdalena Sabat

Magdalena’s research training is in communications, media and sex and gender studies. She has a PhD in Media, Culture, and Communication from NYU. At the Diversity Institute, she contributes expertise to the Institute’s core research portfolio, with a leading role on the Workforce Innovation and Inclusion Project and the Bridging the Technology Skills Gap Project.

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