This article first appeared in the Calgary Herald on Aug. 7, written by Dr. David J. Finch, Professor and Senior Fellow, Institute for Community Prosperity, Mount Royal University; and Dexter Lam, Manager, Talent, at Calgary Economic Development. Dr. Finch will be presenting at the New Economy Live event, Learning to Adapt: Embracing disruption as an opportunity for Calgary, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Register for in-person or virtual attendance.
The drivers of competitive advantage for cities have transitioned in recent decades from their proximity to valuable natural resources and logistical market access to their ability to attract, retain and mobilize valuable people.
A city’s capacity to develop a workforce of talented people increasingly underpins both its economic and social prosperity. It’s not a simple task. At one time, we could plan for a dream job or a career path that could be counted on to allow us to make a living and a life.
In today’s increasingly digital economy, that’s not necessarily the case. A chosen job or career path may not even exist in a year or two.
Calgary is a city in transformation. It is critical we address this issue of people, skills and competencies, and that we get it right. Our ability to develop world-class talent is a pillar of the economic strategy Calgary in the New Economy. It is vital to our city’s future growth and long-term prosperity.
We need to evolve our thinking on jobs and skills.
As people, and as a city, we need to shift from defining our futures through jobs to thinking about our potential through our personal competencies. Developing a rich set of competencies will allow Calgarians to better adapt to the fast-evolving world we live in.
What is a competency? The combination of aptitude, ability, knowledge and skills to complete a specific task define what we refer to as competencies. Traditionally, job-specific competencies were most valued by employers as they were most directly applicable to the tasks at hand. A bookkeeper’s value was defined by knowledge of how to keep financial records.
For many occupations, from accounting to skilled trades, frameworks emerged to define and prioritize the competencies that were required for a given job. However, in today’s rapidly changing world, studies suggest most job-specific competencies have a shelf-life of less than six years.
In contrast, enabling competencies (also called soft skills or transferable skills) help people adapt and adopt new job-specific competencies. If bookkeeping jobs disappear because of artificial intelligence, bookkeepers can rely on their enabling competencies — problem-solving, collaborating, communicating — and core literacies to transform too.
A study for Calgary Economic Development found that enabling competencies account for two-thirds of all the competencies required for jobs. It is our enabling competencies that will create opportunities for Calgarians in the new economy.
Unfortunately, our current education system focuses on job-specific competencies and our approach to supporting the development of enabling competencies is broken. Thousands of organizations are helping Calgarians develop these critical career-building skills, yet few explicitly recognize the important contribution they are making to our citizens or our city.
We don’t even have a common language for enabling competencies. A typical competency can have up to eight synonyms. We have all seen the job postings, resumes and educational courses that describe “collaboration” or “problem-solving” in endless ways.
Think about your competencies as your currency. Imagine you walk into a store that uses dozens of currencies all at the same time. You hand the cashier a loonie and get a peso in change. Without a common currency, a marketplace takes much more effort to reach outcomes all participants find acceptable.
Similarly, without a shared language around competencies, it’s a challenge to communicate effectively, let alone reach common outcomes.
A lack of a common understanding around the language of enabling competencies also allows unconscious biases to influence judgments about people. Without an ability to assess competencies objectively, hiring decisions that involve team fit can be subject to intuitive judgments. These include how different or unfamiliar a candidate may seem to the decision-maker.
There is evidence the collective impact of this type of intuitive decision-making reinforces systemic exclusion of individuals and communities. It is a key element of the current society-wide conversation about how to improve equity, diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
It’s time for Calgary to adopt a common competency currency. The good news for Calgarians is that language has been established in a municipal strategy titled Competencies for Life.
Developed over two years, Competencies for Life is a set of 25 enabling competencies in six clusters based on leading models from education, industry, and community development in Canada and globally. The pivotal thing about the Competencies for Life is the desire of diverse community partners eager to adopt it as our city’s common language.
Competencies for Life is a pilot project funded by Calgary city council. It is being deployed by Calgary Economic Development in partnership with groups including Mount Royal University, the Centre for Newcomers, the Genesis Centre, WinSport, SAIT, Trellis and Calgary Public Library. The premise is simple. What if organizations used a common language to describe enabling competencies, including creativity, active listening and financial literacy? What if job seekers were coached to understand their personal strengths and share about their abilities using this common language?
What if the 154,000 employers in Calgary posted jobs using a common language? And what if the 10,000 organizations that support developing these competencies in Calgary, from schools to summer camps, also adopted this common language?
The future of our city can no longer be defined by a commodity, regardless of whether it’s a resource, a type of occupation or a set of job-specific skills. The future will be defined by our capacity to adapt and enable each Calgarian to create personalized mixes of valuable abilities.
It starts with committing to developing a workforce with the competencies that allow us all to embrace change, the Competencies for Life.
The next New Economy Live event Aug. 31 features a presentation by Dr. David J. Finch and a panel discussion with Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, Dr. Linda ManyGuns, Associate Vice-President Indigenization and Decolonization, Mount Royal University, Anila Umar Lee Yuen, President and CEO, Centre for Newcomers, and Janet Lane, Director of the Human Capital Centre, Canada West Foundation. Visit our events page for more information and to register.