Tech’s next great opportunity is mid-career workers

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Mid-career workers have solid business skills valuable to the tech industry.
(Unsplash), CC BY

Arvind Gupta, University of Toronto and AJ Tibando, Ryerson University

In the movie The Intern, a 70-year-old Robert De Niro decides to make a career change and lands an internship at an online fashion startup overflowing with young millennials and free food. The running joke in this film is that DeNiro is too “old” to create space for himself in a startup, a world for the “young.”

While De Niro’s character is fictional, the lessons in this film about talent and ageism in the tech sector are quite real.

In displaying the golden goose of characteristics that many of Canada’s tech giants are after — a desire to constantly learn and grow — the analogy of the “aged intern” highlights tech’s next greatest talent pool: the middle-aged or “mid-career” worker.

We’ve spent several decades studying and operating in the skills training and workforce development space. While job transitions have always been an area of challenge for mid-career workers, our research with the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship has highlighted the looming impacts of automation in exacerbating that challenge, as well as the inherent opportunity for these workers to be absorbed into the digital economy, an area of high growth desperate for talent.

Shattering the myth

For many years, the idea has persisted among tech companies that in order to be innovative, they must be built by and for young people. Mark Zuckerberg infamously declared that tech companies should think twice before hiring anyone over 30. Now in his mid-30s, he has presumably moved that bar.

However, many tech companies are still made up predominantly of younger workers. Young founders often hire young peers, recent graduates are often paid less, and there are a deeply entrenched ageism and assumptions in the tech world that “older” workers (those over 30) won’t fit into a company’s culture or contribute the same value.

To put it bluntly, this view is short-sighted.

As Canada’s digital economy grows and scrappy startups become larger multinational corporations, they will require many of the same solid business skills that any other company does. Positions in sales, marketing, project and people management all require transferable skills that are often in the greatest demand for larger firms, tech or otherwise. Beyond that, understanding solid business processes that foster scaling are critical and come from years of experience.

This is where we need a new pool of talent for fast-growing Canadian tech companies that is highly experienced, skilled and understands the systems that make a business succeed.

Who are mid-career workers?

Mid-career workers are individuals who have been in the workforce for 10 or more years and who are sitting at the halfway mark in building their careers. This describes the vast majority of the workforce in Canada. They generally have strong business acumen in fostering firm growth and bring a level of maturity and professionalism that comes through hard-earned experience.

As tech companies rapidly grow, they need to hire people who have real-world experience, have worked on and led teams, can build relationships and know how to move products and processes forward. Many such companies regularly say they struggle to find tech workers with these skills.

The true obstacle here, however, may be that tech companies are largely unwilling to accept the suggestion that their best possible hires may neither be young nor from within the tech sector at all.

Many workers will likely soon be looking for their next career move due to rapid advances in automation. Unlike a recession or the shocks to the economy that we are familiar with, automation has the potential to have drastic and permanent impacts on entire sectors.

For mid-career workers in vulnerable sectors, losing a job at one company may well eliminate the option of finding work at another similar firm because automation would have affected jobs there as well.

The likely result will be a growing demographic of top talent looking to break into new industries, including tech. Seizing this opportunity, however, will require Canadian tech firms to adopt some new thinking and a new approach when it comes to retraining and reskilling.

Converting potential into talent

The challenge is to convert the foundation of knowledge and experience of highly skilled mid-career workers into new streams of talent for fast-growing sectors, such as tech, without overlooking the specificities of what it takes to succeed in these sectors.

For example, a senior retail sales manager understands the sales process: how to listen to potential clients, build a sales channel, nurture prospects and close a deal. In the tech space, the product or service will be different and the tools almost certainly state-of-the-art. Although the core skills gained from years of experience will be key to making the transition into a tech firm, doing so will likely require more training.

Read more:
Is Canada’s skills shortage real, or are businesses to blame?

Now consider the life of a mid-career worker who, with a mortgage and growing family obligations, needs to make this shift as quickly and seamlessly as possible. Less interested in “credentials,” these people will need the digital literacy and technical skills that allow their new employers take them seriously.

Training that is mid-career focused and cross-sectoral does not currently exist at scale. We envision a training approach that is entirely industry-led, designed to operate on the fastest timeline possible and leverages job placements and work-integrated learning opportunities so that these workers are not just skilled, but provided with on-ramps to new careers.

What is needed to accomplish this is a mechanism that rapidly confers new skills to mid-career workers, shifting their talents and potential from high-risk sectors to high-demand sectors.

Our new Canadian initiative, Palette Inc., is attempting to do exactly this. Palette is pioneering a new approach to mid-career retraining by connecting industry, workers and educators to develop new pathways for workers to move from declining industries to growing ones. As automation’s impacts become more present, this mechanism will match employers up with workers that possess the right skills.

For companies willing to look past the obvious yet minor gaps in skills to see potential and talent, great rewards await.

Arvind Gupta, Professor of computer science at the University of Toronto and the former CEO & founder of MITACS, University of Toronto and AJ Tibando, Project Lead + Founder of Palette Skills Inc., Ryerson University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

No matter what method is used to teach math, make it fun

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The Ontario government “back to basics” approach to the curriculum will not best serve children who need a mixture of traditional and discovery learning methods.

Anthony Bonato, Ryerson University

There’s a change coming to Ontario’s elementary school math curriculum. The new provincial government says it is responding to a decline of standardized test scores and plans to recommend a return to “back-to-basics” teaching methods for mathematics teachers.

Premier Doug Ford and Minister of Education Lisa Thompson have told educators that directives for changes will be coming within a matter of weeks. Teachers, whose lesson plans for the fall are already drawn, are possibly now scrambling to implement new curriculum guidelines.

Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) scores for students in Grade 6 and Grade 3 in Ontario are both down one percentage point from last year. Previous efforts, including a $60-million initiative by the former Liberal government to improve the EQAO scores, have not worked.

What are ‘back-to-basics’ methods?

What exactly are “back-to-basics” teaching methods for mathematics? These traditional methods of mathematics education include an emphasis on drills, formulas and memorization. If you are old enough, then this was how you were taught mathematics in grade school. In contrast, discovery-based methods spend less time on rules and puts more emphasis on problem solving and applications.

The two methods have somewhat opposing approaches. In traditional methods, rules are taught first and then drilled into students via memorization and solving problems. In discovery methods, problems and examples come first and are abstracted to rules and formulas.

Doug Ford’s ‘back-to-basics’ approach to mathematics is a traditional method where math is drilled into students via memorization.


For example, in a traditional math lesson, children are told the rule that the order of multiplication of two numbers doesn’t matter, and then they would work on problems related to that topic. In discovery math, children would work out examples such as 2 times 3 and 3 times 2, and then abstract this to the general case. Both approaches teach the same thing, but in different ways.

No one should be surprised by these changes after the Progressive Conservatives won a majority in the Ontario election in June. During the election campaign, Ford tweeted, “…We are going to scrap discovery math, and replace it with proven methods of teaching:”

A similar change was announced regarding Ontario’s sex-ed curriculum and elementary school teachers are now required to teach a curriculum essentially dating back to 1998.

Which option is better?

There are pros and cons to both traditional and discovery methods.

My issue with the debate about the “correct” way to teach mathematics to children is the way it is phrased as a binary, either-or approach. The choices we are given are:

1) Drill students on topics such as fractions and timetables.

2) Have children discover math rules and formulas from scratch.

Neither approach in isolation does justice to math education or reflects how people learn mathematics.

Learning rules and formulas in mathematics is an essential skill, as you need a foundation from which to build. Children need to know what the product of 6 and 8 is without having to rediscover it every time.

Children gain critical skills through discovery.


At the same time, children gain critical problem-solving skills via discovery. They get to think more deeply about the subject. No one would teach language skills by only teaching grammar. You teach children the rudiments of grammar to get them speaking, reading and writing.

In my university teaching, I employ a mixture of traditional and discovery approaches. For example, in a first-year Calculus course, I introduce a formula or rule at the beginning of a lecture but spend most of the class working out examples interactively with the class so they may figure out how things work. In a more advanced, upper-year mathematics course, I state a theorem or problem, but then break up the class into smaller groups and have the students discover the proof with hints from me along the way.

A third path: Math specialists

When I was in elementary school, our classes had the occasional visit from specialist teachers who focused solely on art or music. These teachers didn’t perform the regular, daily instruction in classes but instead floated between classes enriching the curriculum. It was always a treat when these specialist teachers came and it also was a break from the routine of everyday instruction.

Let’s imagine something like this with mathematics education. Math specialists could be teachers with a mathematics background in their university education, or even math professors or university students with the proper training to engage with elementary school classes. I can think of plenty of fun and engaging lessons in my research area of networks for a Grade 6 class, for example. Math specialists would float between classes with the sole goal of enriching math education for kids.

Lisa Thompson, Ontario’s Minister of Education scrums with reporters following Question Period, at the Queens Park Legislature, in Toronto on Thursday, August 9, 2018.


Math specialists may assist with the teaching of core material, but more importantly, they would help coach teachers and provide lesson plans that complement the material. Their goals would be to engage students and cultivate their interest in learning mathematics.

While mathematics educators like myself might point to the positive impact of math specialists, research on their effectiveness is still emerging. A study funded by a National Science Foundation at Virginia Commonwealth University found that math specialists have a significant, positive impact on student achievement. Similar results were reported by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Beyond test scores

While test scores are important, there is much more to mathematics education. Despite the declining EQAO scores, our kids aren’t exactly flunking out of math in droves. The EQAO standards require a 70 per cent or better to qualify as meeting the standard, not the typical passing grade of 50 per cent.

Our children must be exposed to a rich, engaging mathematics curriculum, even if they don’t become mathematicians or have anything to do with STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) directly in their adult lives. Numeracy, like literacy, is an essential skill in our modern world.

A generation with weak math skills will not be competitive to tackle the next set of challenges in our knowledge-based economy. And a dislike of math tends to pass on from one generation to the next. No child should think it makes them cool to boast that they hate math.

While we are rethinking math education in Ontario, let’s use the best of both traditional and discovery methods and add in math specialists. Done correctly, this should not only increase test scores, but also bolster student engagement.

Let’s also take the time and effort to make math fun. Imagine if children were excited to learn mathematics? Isn’t that what we all want?

Anthony Bonato, Professor of Mathematics, Ryerson University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.