Our journey from a whiteboard to launching our first pilot
Today we’ve reached a significant milestone. For over two years we’ve been working hard to tell a new story about the future of work in Canada that focuses on solutions to many of the challenges that come with a rapidly changing labor market. We don’t accept the idea that labour market changes caused by automation inevitably means loss for workers. Instead, we believe in the capacity of people to both adapt and thrive in Canada’s labor market, provided they are given the right opportunities and support. To this end we’ve designed an approach to upskilling that helps transition professionals from declining industries into ones that are growing. We’re proud to announce that we’ll be receiving funding from Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) to turn that vision into a reality.
How it all started
A couple years ago we started to notice a growing problem - as technology was changing work it was disrupting how skilled workers participated in Canada’s labor market. New technologies like automation and artificial intelligence, were beginning to create wide-scale displacement that forced skilled workers in industries like retail, finance and manufacturing into a difficult position. Workers had to choose whether they were going to stay in a declining industry or attempt to transition into a new job in brand new industries. From this problem we started to focus on a couple particular aspects.
In fast growing industries, such as tech and advanced manufacturing, the constant challenge being cited most by employers is the struggle to find skilled talent. While this seems to hold true for firms of all sizes, it is particularly acute for small and medium sized companies going through rapid growth or ‘scaling’. When we spoke to these companies what we often heard was that their talent needs were not just for people with STEM backgrounds, that many of the jobs they needed to fill could be considered ‘mid-tech’, like quality assurance technicians or product managers, or ‘low-tech’, like sales, marketing and HR managers. What they often referenced was the struggle to find people with maturity, professionalism and experience to fill these roles.
In disrupted industries, generally traditional spaces with large employee bases, we saw that companies were experiencing the larger scale restructuring of firms resulting in worker displacement. Many of the automating technologies disrupting these industries were replacing professional services roles that often require some level of skill-base or credential to hold. As a result, many of the workers displace were mature, professional and somewhat educated, yet because their networks and work experience was all based in a rapidly changing industry, these assets didn’t insulate them from job precarity like they used to.
At Palette, we’ve come to refer to this phenomenon as ‘automation induced job precarity’. We thought this challenge needed a name because we so often think of precarious work either taking the form of low skilled, replaceable work or gig economy type workplaces with unstable, highly fluctuating hours and wages. While these are also urgent workforce challenges that need to be addressed, our goal became to highlight this emerging demographic of vulnerable workers and ensure that there was a system in place to support them.
A different kind of training program
While certain upskilling and training programs exist, we see this challenge requiring two unique considerations that are not currently targeted by existing programs. The first is that few programs focus primarily on mid-career workers (as opposed to youth or recent grads). The second is the need to help people accomplish cross-sector career transitions, as opposed to securing a similar job in a similar field to the one that was lost.
When it comes to the unique needs and priorities of mid-career workers, we decided to focus on the fact that many of these people are currently supporting a family, paying off a mortgage or simply dealing with the everyday life commitments that come with adulthood. This means that their number one priority will be to get back into the job market as quickly as possible. They couldn’t afford to spend a year or more going back to school but they also couldn’t afford the instability that came with sticking to their current, precarious career path. We had to ensure that our approach was driven by the companies that wanted to hire quickly and that we spent time enough time upfront mapping the skills these workers were entering the program with, so that we only spent time training them on the remaining 20-30% gap of skills they needed to transition.
Most training programs are designed on the assumption that the biggest barrier to a worker securing a job is a lack of skills. Our research tested that assumption and found that when companies hired mid-career workers, their credentials were less important and their networks and work place experience were prioritized. Because of the natural way that networks are formed, the longer a worker is in a single sector and develops a work history in that sector, the stronger their networks within that sector become - and the weaker their linkages to other sectors become, if they existed in the first place. We knew that when designing Palette, we needed to focus on how to breakdown these sector based barriers to help workers develop new networks and gain new work experience that would increase their attractiveness to hiring companies.
Launching a new reality
To address these challenges effectively, we developed demand-led upskilling model that starts by identifying high demand jobs and the skills required for them, identifying talent pools of well-suited candidates from disrupted sectors, then worked backwards to build a rapid, intensive and experiential learning program. While every program will be different depending on what jobs need to be filled, the ‘Palette Model’ is essentially comprised of three things: intensive, employer-led skills training, meaningful network development opportunities through experiential learning, and a 3 month job placement with a hiring partner seeking to fill a high demand role. This model ensures that our programming not only addresses the skills gap that these workers face, but also helps them develop the networks and work experience employers consider essential when making hiring decisions.
Today’s funding announcement from ESDC will help us launch our inaugural program, SalesCamp. SalesCamp was developed after extensive research with the Toronto tech community which identified B2B sales as a major hiring challenge. We have identified workers from retail sales, communications and other backgrounds in that are struggling to find work who have the right foundation to succeed in tech. To launch SalesCamp, we’ve pulled together an all-star list of partners, including OCADU Co, Revenue University, Sales Talent Agency, SalesTO, and Founder City Project; hiring partners including D2L, Moneris, TopHat, Clearbanc, Ceridian, SOTI, Riipen and Givex; and major supporters including the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship, Council of Canadian Innovators, and ITAC. SalesCamp will run three cohorts over the next 12 months with the goal of upskilling and placing 60 workers in new jobs.
Our vision is for a Canadian workforce that has the skills they need to thrive in the changing economy. The challenge of helping workers adapt to automation and helping companies meet their potential is national in scope. Over the next two years, we plan to expand programming into new regions and sectors that are experiencing this challenge with the goal of helping those communities build a system of workforce transition that will help them remain resilient in the face of change and uncertainty. By leveraging partnerships to develop and deliver programming, Palette can serve as the connective tissue within the labour market and workforce development ecosystems to bring together the right local partners to both catalyze impact and create new systems for lasting change. Today represents a major milestone on our journey, but it is only the beginning and we are excited for what the future holds.