Future of Work

LinkedIn wants to train Canada’s workforce. The Future Skills Centre is its way in

In this Monday, June 13, 2016, file photo, the LinkedIn logo appears on a screen at the post where it trades on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Microsoft will break out LinkedIn revenue when it reports its quarterly earnings Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
In this Monday, June 13, 2016, file photo, the LinkedIn logo appears on a screen at the post where it trades on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. AP Photo/Richard Drew, File

Before the federal government closed applications for the Future Skills Centre—an arms-length government initiative aimed at pre-empting a labour market crisis—LinkedIn sent letters of support to each consortium that stands a chance of winning the bid for the $363-million fund. “This is the way we can have the most impact, by far,” Jake Hirsch-Allen, head of LinkedIn’s education umbrella in Canada, told The Logic of the company’s move to partner on the initiative.

Collaborating with the centre would be a boon for the Microsoft-owned company, which has made closing the skills gap part of its mandate through LinkedIn Learning, its education-focused branch. Indeed, it could be the company’s Trojan Horse into every corner of the country-wide labour-force retraining effort.

But some are raising concerns that the Future Skills Centre may be destined for trouble by self-selecting only institutions that can manage such a large sum of money, and by a system that could put the training focus in the hands of private corporations, like LinkedIn.

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Talking Point

The Future Skills Centre—a $363-million initiative—has captured the attention of think tanks, post-secondaries and corporations all jockeying for a stake in the emerging business of skills training. The federal government says it wants a “nimble” non-profit to lead the initiative, but some say private corporations—like LinkedIn, which submitted letters of support for each major applicant—are best positioned to lead the centre’s training and data-sharing mandates.

LinkedIn’s foray into skills training began in earnest three years ago, when the company acquired the online education company Lynda.com. Around that time, fears of imminent labour shortages and worker displacement were bubbling up in Canada. Researchers warned of a 182,000-employee shortfall in the IT sector by 2019, and that the country could lose up to 7.5 million jobs to automation by 2030.

In response to these and other troubling predictions, Ottawa formed the Advisory Council on Economic Growth led by Dominic Barton, then McKinsey managing director, to determine how to redirect Canada’s economic course. In February 2017, the council recommended the federal government commit more resources to skills training, and to do so through a Future Skills Lab (since rebranded to the Future Skills Centre) and an associated Future Skills Council. The centre would control $363 million fund, distributed over six years—$23 million in the first year, $48 million in the second year and $73 million for each of the remaining four years.

The centre has captured the attention of think tanks, post-secondaries and corporations all jockeying for a stake in the emerging business of skills training and retraining (also referred to as “upskilling”)—a space in which LinkedIn is well positioned.

The company is considered to have the largest labour market database in the world, thanks to its 550 million users who’ve volunteered their virtual resumes and job descriptions. That data has helped LinkedIn study labour market conditions, like the connectivity of the innovation corridor between Vancouver and Seattle, and brain drain in Ottawa. They’ve studied why Toronto has more unfilled jobs than anywhere else in Canada, and determined that part of the reason was a gap in how job-seekers communicate what skills they have. Seneca College designed a boot camp based on the findings; it now has funding from the Ontario government to run training programs focused on building, and communicating, in-demand skills.

Last year, LinkedIn struck a deal with eCampus Ontario, a government-funded organization, to buy Lynda.com licenses on behalf of every post-secondary institution in the province. Hirsch-Allen says company is now in talks with Alberta and B.C. to do the same in their jurisdictions. LinkedIn has visions of putting Lynda.com at the fingertips of every newcomer to Canada, and of every citizen on some form of employment assistance from a government.

LinkedIn itself did not qualify to bid on becoming the centre; applicants had to be a Canadian non-profit organization. The company did, however, write letters of support to accompany the bids of the four front-runners, each of which was led by an Ontario university or large non-profit, including the University of Toronto, Ryerson, Waterloo and the Social Research and Development Corporation. The Conference Board of Canada and Mitacs were each part of different bidding consortiums, as well (the 2017 federal budget earmarked $221 million for Mitacs over five years to create 10,000 work placements per year).

Hirsch-Allen was surprised at how few LinkedIn competitors threw their support behind any or all of the consortiums. (Glassdoor declined to comment for this story, and Monster.com did not reply to The Logic’s requests). But Hamoon Ekhtiari, founder and CEO of Audacious Futures, which works with individuals and organization to bridge the skills gap, said the procurement process for the initiative simply wasn’t conducive to smaller organizations playing a central role. “We saw the application process come out, and given the scale and magnitude of it, we didn’t directly put an application in,” said Ekhtiari. “From the procurement perspective, it comes with significant requirements around organizational history and budget, which then immediately limits the pool of who can be directly and primarily involved at the decision-making level to just a handful of organizations in the country.”

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Polytechnics Canada, an association of 13 of the largest colleges in the country, has also stayed outside the federal procurement process, citing concerns around mission creep. “Though this is a fairly substantial investment, I think that as soon as you start to include all things, then that waters down your ability make a real impact in any one area,” said Sarah Watts-Rynard, the organization’s new CEO, referring to the focal shift away from mid-career training and upskilling to a laundry list of mandates.

In a blog post following the call for applications, Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, said it was “utter fantasy” to believe there is a Canadian organization capable of meeting the requirements.

Skeptics worry the result, then, becomes one of two outcomes: one being that the centre is run by a bureaucratic institution—a university, for instance—that’s more concerned with analyzing labour market challenges than solving the problems we know to exist. “We need to take a number of best practices that exist in the country and scale them up,” said Nobina Robinson, who retired as CEO of Polytechnics Canada this month. “We need to identify what we have never even tried to do and find solutions, and test and come up with pilot solutions.”

The other concern is having a large corporation be handed the reigns. “Whether it’s LinkedIn or any underlying technologies database solution that we incorporate into the Future Skills Centre, none of them actually have complete data,” Ekhtiari pointed out. “They all have their biases.” LinkedIn, for instance, skews towards white-collar jobs. Polytechnics Canada—granted, not a corporation—skews more blue-collar.

The Barton report itself seemed to foresee some of these concerns: “Operational independence and freedom from political influence are critical to the FutureSkills Lab’s success,” it reads. “It must be nimble and entrepreneurial in order to respond to a rapidly changing work landscape.”

I’m a big believer in the private sector contributing,” Ekhtiari added, “but I don’t think we should ever give ultimate power to the private sector in solving societal problems.” A nascent initiative like the Future Skills Centre, he said, runs the risk of having that happen. “The people at the table don’t really have a clear hypothesis or vision for how to solve the problem, but they have heard of some shiny tool that has a view on how that problem can be solved and some brand recognition, and they default to the way that tool would solve the problem.”

Hirsch-Allen said that governments generally work well with the private sector on infrastructure but that there’s room for more collaboration in the technology space.

“We aren’t, for instance, around labour market information, sharing data very much. And we look forward to doing that more.”

The winner of the Future Skills Centre will be announced some time before March 31, 2019—the deadline for its first funding deployment of $23 million.

Of all the uncertainty surrounding the future of work and the skills centre in particular, one thing is apparent: whatever the future of Canada’s labour force, LinkedIn will play a role in shaping it.