Opening New Pathways to Careers in Technology for Indigenous Learners We're facing a digital skills gap in North America that's harming our ability to innovate.

By Pablo Listingart

entrepreneur daily

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Salesforce 2022 Digital Skills Index revealed that around 81% of Canadians and 71% of Americans don't feel equipped to grasp and master the digital skills currently required by businesses across sectors, and 86 and 74% don't feel prepared to meet the demands of the future.

During the pandemic, demand has grown even more rapidly for individuals with the skills and knowledge to meet the needs of digitally transformed industries and sectors. According to the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC), Canada's demand for digitally-skilled talent is expected to reach 305,000 by 2023, resulting in a total of over 2 million employed in the digital economy. In the U.S., that number ascends to millions in the most conservative forecasts, while many actors in the tech ecosystem try to tackle the issue by providing online training to the mass population. Digital and technology careers offer some of the greatest opportunities for employment in North America's modern workforce.

Related: Big Tech Can Do Good and Do Well At the Same Time

Underrepresentation

At the same time, Canadian unemployment rates, for example, are 1.5 times higher among Indigenous populations. Based on projections from 2019, approximately 5.1% of the Canadian labor force is currently working in tech, and if that percentage is applied to the employed Indigenous population, it should mean that approximately 29,682 First Nations, Métis and Inuit people are working in tech.

Unfortunately, that's far from the case. Indigenous youth, one of Canada's fastest growing populations, make up only 1.2% of Information and Communications Technology workers. They're also widely underrepresented in STEM fields at higher-level academic institutions.

According to a report from Ryerson University's Diversity Institute done in concert with the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB), 33.8% of Indigenous workers are in industries that are at high risk of losing jobs to automation, a trend which has accelerated during the pandemic. That constitutes 250,000 jobs held by Indigenous peoples.

In their report, the CCAB makes recommendations on addressing this issue, for example by investing in greater opportunities for Indigenous populations to reach higher levels of education. Current barriers to this include forced relocation, lack of guidance and culturally appropriate offerings, the cost of education and intergenerational trauma. While tackling these issues in traditional post-secondary education is crucial, there must also be an emphasis placed on alternative options that can help address the issue more rapidly.

Related: Study: Tech Companies Need to Check Their Diversity Blindspots

Ways to help

Employment deficits in the tech industry offer a window of opportunity to get more Indigenous peoples employed, and microcredentials can help make this happen. Microcredentials are certifications of assessed learning associated with a specific skill or competency. They enable upskilling in a flexible, fast and affordable way and help businesses understand more directly what specific skills a job applicant possesses.

One of the current barriers to this is that many microcredentials still come at a cost as providers include large corporations, colleges, universities and other professional organizations, even though there's often the opportunity for tax credits to cover part of the fees. Still, the bureaucratic or corporate nature of many of these opportunities leads to barriers in access, driving home the immediate need for charitable organizations working with Indigenous and underserved communities to also offer this sort of programming in a more accessible way.

This is why I started the charity ComIT back in 2016. We recently launched a program called Recoding Futures with Google's support to provide free, scholarship-based digital skills training to thousands of Indigenous learners across Canada. We tailor our three-month, part-time courses based on the technology needs and demands of local employers to ensure graduates are developing skills that will set them up for success.

Along with technology-based learning, we focus on critical job skills like resume building and interview training, along with professional growth and mentorship opportunities that develop graduates into quality candidates for in-demand technology jobs. An important aspect of this is that programs are offered remotely, allowing for greater access for people living in remote communities, where quality education may not be available otherwise.

This isn't a catch-all solution as there are still a myriad of other barriers, including unreliable internet access, especially in remote communities and on reserve, alongside unsafe living conditions. Microcredentials are not going to fix these complex problems, which require collaboration from Indigenous communities and leadership, all levels of government, the private sector, not-for-profits and others to solve, but they offer an opportunity for making transferable education and skills accessible and affordable.

All the while, this could help tackle digital skills gaps which are an impediment to growth and innovation. It's vital that we teach skills and experience that are applicable to rapidly transforming economies, helping people develop the tools to adapt and succeed in an increasingly digitized world.

According to a report by the Public Policy Forum and the Diversity Institute, 350,000 Indigenous youth in Canada will be working age by 2026, and if proper investments are made in ensuring this population receives proper opportunities and support, they can boost the local economy by $27.7 billion annually. This would help the ability to foster homegrown talent.

For this to be successful, training must be culturally relevant, transferable back to community and the wider labor market, and offer students the ability to connect with Indigenous role models. To play a role in this, employers must be open to receiving candidates with microcredentials instead of or as a supplement to traditional education. More and more employers in North America are seeing the value microcredentials bring and doing away with traditional post-secondary education requirements on applications, a trend which is likely to grow over the next decade.

Related: The Next Hot Ticket in Ed Tech? Micro-Credentials

Pablo Listingart

Founder & Executive Director at ComIT & Comunidad IT

Pablo Listingart is the founder and Executive Director at ComIT, a Canadian charity which aims to develop a community that links people struggling to overcome employment barriers with companies looking for talented IT professionals.

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