When UBC student Tahir Adatia applied for a summer internship with an investment bank, he was the only philosophy major in a crowd of commerce students.

“I told them straight up, I’m not technically gifted,” Adatia said. “I bring something different.”

In the end, he landed the job. In the age of disruption, different can be good.

In a new RBC report, Bridging the Gap: What Canadians Told us about the Skills Revolution, we followed up on our landmark research into the future of work, Humans Wanted, by spending a year travelling across the country, engaging with students, educators, business owners and policymakers.

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Over the course of those discussions, a number of insights emerged into how the skills revolution is playing out across our country — and the challenges we need to confront.

One of those challenges is that Liberal Arts programs are in decline — even though demand for their skills is up. We heard from employers that they are increasingly looking for candidates with the soft skills cultivated in the arts and sciences, such as critical thinking and communication — but post-secondary leaders told us enrollment in the Liberal Arts is down by double-digits.

In our tech-obsessed society, public discourse is so hostile to the humanities that young people are turning away from them, according to Patrick Deane, the president at McMaster University.

“Parents, governments and society at large underestimate the critical skills fostered in the humanities – this is a long-term systemic and cultural problem,” Deane said.

Between 2011 and 2017, enrollment in the humanities fell by 17.5%. Over the same period, enrollment increased by 45% in mathematics, computer and information sciences. These areas of study are seen as a more direct path to a steady job after graduation, the holy grail for young people who grew up in the shadow of the Great Recession.

Students studying arts and sciences find themselves worrying about where they fit into the future of work.

“Everyone’s scared of not getting a job,” Adatia said. “You can have a passion but you can’t have a job, that’s the perception.”

But it’s not the reality. While students are increasingly choosing specialized training, employers are looking for well-rounded graduates. According to LinkedIn, the top soft skills employers are having trouble hiring for are creativity, persuasion and collaboration.

“Soft skills are every bit as important as numeracy,” said Steven Murphy, Ontario Tech’s president and vice chancellor.

Adatia, whose philosophy major is complimented by a minor in commerce, found his future employer was willing to help get him up to speed on the technical aspects of the job. The team was excited by the skills he already brought to the table, like the ability to think critically, argue and reason.

Today’s demand for a Liberal Arts skillset isn’t happening despite automation. It’s happening because of it. As more tasks become automated in the workplace, there is a growing demand for people with the skills to both complement and collaborate with technology.

Employers are looking for technical capacity as a baseline. Those who get hired, like Adatia, are the ones that can demonstrate communication and complex problem solving skills.

Heading into the 2020s, we need more curiosity and creativity from all new grads in Canada. This is behind a growing push for interdisciplinary learning. While STEM grads need soft skills, humanities programs need to focus on providing digital fluency to their students. Gone are the days when students can be a ‘master of one’.

The future of work may be changing, but Canada’s youth have the potential, the ambition and power to impact the world around them.

Getting the word out to young graduates about the opportunities that await them is a communications challenge for employers and career counsellors.

Our Bridging the Gap research shows arts students exactly what to do with their B.A. after graduation: put it on their CV.
 

John Stackhouse is a nationally bestselling author and one of Canada’s leading voices on innovation and economic disruption. He is senior vice-president in the office of the CEO at Royal Bank of Canada, leading the organization’s research and thought leadership on economic, technological and social change. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail and editor of Report on Business. He is a senior fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. His latest book is Planet Canada: How Our Expats Are Shaping the Future, which explores the untapped resource of the millions of Canadians who don’t live here but exert their influence from afar.

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