Preparing employees for jobs of the future will require leaders in business, government, and higher education to work together

Toronto Gallup event. Photo by David Chau for Northeastern University

Preparing employees for jobs of the future will require leaders in business, government, and higher education to work together. That was a major takeaway from a conference at Northeastern’s Toronto campus to discuss the results of a Northeastern-Gallup poll on attitudes toward artificial intelligence in the U.S., the U.K and Canada. 

“We have to do more partnering with universities on that note,” Helena Gottschling, the chief human resources officer at the Royal Bank of Canada, told an audience comprised of the three sectors gathered for a conference at Northeastern’s Toronto campus this week.

She added that employers need to do more to communicate “what we need in our workforce through the universities, so that we’re helping to inform the skills and capabilities that the universities are growing through the student populations.”

The conference follows the publication of a survey conducted by Northeastern and Gallup that  revealed an international cross-section of opinions about artificial intelligence as economies around the world undergo the transformative move to automation.

The poll found that the majority of people in the U.S, Canada, and the U.K. think that artificial intelligence will improve their lives, but also believe that higher education, government, and employers are not doing enough to improve their skills.

David Piccini, parliamentary assistant to the minister of colleges and universities in Ontario, viewed the sentiment as a call to action.

“We know that the jobs of today—fundamentally the jobs of tomorrow—are going to require lifelong learning, so from a public policy perspective, how do we ensure that lifelong learning is accessible, that lifelong learning is equitable for all, and how are we ensuring our postsecondary institutions are positioned to respond to those needs?” Piccini said.

Compared to 34 percent of respondents in the U.K. and 37 percent of those polled in Canada, only 17 percent of U.S. respondents reported feeling worried about losing their jobs as a result of artificial intelligence. 

Gottschling found the prevailing attitude among all three groups both surprising and reassuring.

“It almost tells a story that ‘Hey, I’m adaptable; I can work through this,’ which is a really good thing,” she said.

While the poll results showed overwhelming support for lifelong learning opportunities, it also revealed pessimism toward higher education. Most graduates in all three countries reported feeling unprepared to work with artificial intelligence, and only three percent of U.S. respondents said they believe American universities adequately prepare graduates for jobs of the future.

It’s understandable, Gottschling said. Time and cost are significant barriers to people seeking a four-year degree. But, colleges and universities have an opportunity to examine not only what they’re teaching, but how they’re delivering their curriculum, she said. Touting internships and cooperative education programs, she said that higher education institutions should do more to integrate academics with work experience.

“It’s skill application,” she said. “All of us learn most by doing. Taking the theory and putting the theory into action is where the real learning actually happens.”

Piccini echoed this sentiment in his remarks. 

“The classrooms that will prepare our students for the future expand beyond the walls of lecture halls,” he said. “The classrooms of tomorrow are tech-immersive. They’re hands-on, and build upon the skills students receive in their physical classroom. This is the future of learning in Ontario; this is the future our government is working to prepare our next generation for.”

Aliza Lakhani, the regional chief executive officer and dean of Northeastern’s Toronto campus, appeared optimistic about the future of employment.

“Every day I am inspired by the great work being done in Toronto and Ontario and Canada, from research to startups coming from academia, industry, and government,” said Lakhani. “I also strongly believe that we need to include all the voices at the table in this conversation, particularly underrepresented groups.”

At this critical moment, Northeastern has launched a campus in Vancouver that will offer degree programs to prepare students for careers in the age of artificial intelligence, including pathways that enable those with no high-tech background to pursue computing careers.

Northeastern’s arrival in British Columbia comes as government and industry leaders join with employees to grapple with the new realities of the automation age. More than 85 percent of Canadian survey respondents view the emergence of artificial intelligence as a threat to jobs over the next decade.

The Vancouver campus will collaborate with the campus in Toronto to develop a base of operations across Canada.

The Toronto and Vancouver campuses are part of Northeastern’s global network, which also includes campuses in London, Charlotte, the Bay Area, and Seattle. Each location serves as a platform for lifelong learning and industry partnerships that support research and experiential education. The educational programs offered at each campus are aligned with industry and tailored to meet the specific needs of learners and employers in the region.

The Toronto campus offers master’s degree programs in fields the region’s employers increasingly demand: project management; information assurance and cybersecurity; and regulatory affairs for drugs, biologics, and medical devices.

As an employer, Gottschling said she views lifelong learning as a shared responsibility between employers and employees. Employers must provide the resources, but employees must be willing to continually learn and seek out opportunities to learn. Lifelong learning accounts could help them do that, she said.

“There’s a huge partnership that’s required between the employee and the employer,” she said. “We spend a lot of money on courses and learning, but it pays off in spades because we retain employees, or we transfer employees to new work.”

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