What taxi drivers and traders teach us about tomorrow’s workplace

At last week’s Times Higher Education Teaching Excellence Summit at Western University in London, Ontario, Royal Bank of Canada president David McKay made the case for more students to spend time in the world of work. Here is an abridged version of his speech.

June 10, 2019
London taxi light
Source: iStock/Teamjackson

I’m a big believer in the transformative power of higher education. But its impact is not limited to those who attend university.

Universities’ efforts are helping to grow economies, solve society’s biggest challenges, encourage civic engagement, foster openness and ultimately, make life better for all of us. Indeed, I cannot think of an institution so central to our standard of living – our quality of life – than the university. And that’s why I am here – to express my gratitude – and to ask you to change.

To be sure, universities are evolving in ways that help set up their graduates for long-term success. But more must be done – and I’d argue – in greater collaboration with employers.

That’s because many business leaders are concerned about the job readiness of young graduates. A major body of research that we undertook at RBC reinforces their view.

In a nutshell: the world of work is changing in profound and permanent ways. Digital literacy is essential. But so too are human skills. Yet our current system does not adequately teach or train young workers to develop this portfolio of skills.

Let me explain.

If you want to look at how the world of work is changing, consider two very different careers – the cab driver and stockbroker.

Let’s start across the Atlantic – in the other London – where arguably, the world’s best cab drivers reside.

For more than 150 years, hopeful drivers of the iconic black cabs have been required to study the twists and turns of central London – known as The Knowledge.

Passing the exam can take up to four years. Yet a graduate’s expertise is difficult to duplicate. And millions of passengers pay a premium for it.

In recent years, however, this knowledge has also been digitised – and centralised – in GPS software. So barriers to entry have all but disappeared for other taxi drivers.

Let’s turn to stockbrokers. I work in an industry where some of the best-paid people earn their living by doing just that.

For as long as anyone remembers, traders did their own homework, built their own portfolios, tracked clients individually. Some performed well. Some didn’t. But it was their specialised knowledge that helped attract and retain clients.

Here, too, new and emerging technologies have enabled investors to make more accurate – and faster – predictions than their human counterparts.

For me, the taxi driver and stockbroker are a sign of the changing times.

The very best knowledge is being codified, centralised and then leveraged across society. 

The ripple effect is permeating deep into the working world, causing huge amounts of disruption and displacement.

According to RBC research, up to 50 per cent of jobs in Canada are expected to be effected by automation.  

It is also creating new opportunities. We estimate close to 2.4 million job openings in the Canadian economy over the next four years alone.

Successful graduates, however, will need to possess skills that complement – rather than compete against – the technological revolution transforming the workplace.  

So how should we adapt? Let’s start with what employers are looking for in their people and work backwards from that. 

So, for us, at RBC, it’s a combination of things. 

We need people who can transfer data into knowledge that, in turn, creates value. These skills aren’t static – they will evolve over time as new tools and technologies are introduced into the workplace. But technical and data literacy is paramount.

Other skills are more foundational, more human. We look for good communicators – collaborators – people who can think creatively and critically. We need to develop leaders who can choose a destination, motivate a team, achieve that vision. Indeed, we often hire people with these so-called “power” skills and then teach them to be bankers.

These skills are vital for everyone. Think back to my earlier examples.

People still ride in London’s black cabs because of the experience. A New York Times article put it this way: these taxi drivers are “fonts of folk wisdom, carrying not just the secrets of London navigation but the deep history of the city and its streets”.

And what about stockbrokers? In a world where algorithms are advisers, won’t their value diminish?

To a point.

AI works well when the trading objective is straightforward. But when it is complex and hard to describe, there is no substitute for human judgement.

That insight can be applied to just about any industry, according to the University of Toronto’s Creative Destruction Lab. As the workplace becomes increasingly automated, human skills become increasingly valuable.

So, where do we go from here?

To begin, learning must be a lifelong endeavour. But, for the most part, it is being compartmentalised.

Think about the undergraduate degree.

Would students be better served if they spent two years at school, entered the workforce for a couple of years, and then finished off their degree with real work experience under their belt?

This model could also be an effective way to reskill workers in mid career – a growing challenge for all of us.

We can also break down the barrier between student life and real life through work-integrated learning.

Let me dive deeper into these learning models by sharing some of my perspectives as a co-op student and CEO.

I started at RBC as a COBOL programmer at 18 years old. The beauty of the co-op programme that I was on is that it gave me the opportunity to move into a bank branch, which is where I truly thrived. I was able to switch my major and realign my education journey to my interests at 18 years old, and became a much more valuable, focused employee coming out of university.

Better for me – better for the taxpayer. Instead of earning a degree at 22 or 23 years old, and starting as a programmer, and finding out by 26 I didn’t want to do this, I was able to refocus at 20 years old.

So I came back to school and challenged my professors differently. I learned differently because of my work experience. My expectations were much higher – the context within in which I was learning was completely different – I sought knowledge instead of receiving it.

This approach not only unlocks student impact earlier, it fosters a culture of innovation, experimentation and growth on campus, as well as in the workplace. That’s certainly been my impression as the CEO at RBC.

I’d like to give you an example of the RBC Amplify program, where summer co-op students – all of whom have never been in financial services before – collaborate to build solutions for our toughest business challenges. Some of these problems had been unsolved for years.

Last year, they worked on projects to improve our predictive analytics capabilities, data management policies, and cyber security measures. One group of students even helped us design and develop a customer-facing app to help new and expecting mums and dads navigate the financial challenges of parenthood.

I’m proud to say that, last September, we filed 15 patents as a result.

This generation – this talent – is ready to be unlocked.

We need to grow and expand programmes like these.

It is how people today learn. They like to experiment, to challenge and to share.

Work placements also build networks for students. It’s a social leveller. And it exposes students from all backgrounds to the way that most employers operate.

Additionally, research suggests Canadian university co-op graduates achieved higher earnings and employment rates than their non-co-op peers. And an overwhelming number of employers surveyed say co-op and internship students are a source of new talent and potential future employees.

I co-chair a coalition of business and academic leaders in Canada called the Business/Higher Education Roundtable.

We’ve set out to create 150,000 meaningful work placements every year to ensure every college and university student has access to these experience during their education journey.

I am pleased with the progress made to date.

However, much of it has been in areas such as engineering, business and medical science. We need to place a greater focus on liberal arts and humanities too – because many of the skills in the new world of work are cultivated in these programmes.

Yet enrolment in these programmes is in decline. In part, that’s because young people see a more direct path to a steady job from a mathematics or computer science degree. They simply don’t understand – or have the right context for – how their skill sets can fit into the new world of work.

We all need to do a better job of promoting the value of these programmes.

Educators and employers have a shared responsibility to help our workforce adapt and thrive.

I’m convinced that our combined and coordinated efforts will ensure people thrive and communities prosper for generations to come. 

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The key thing they can tell us is that a degree is not a pre-requisite for success.

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