Skills demand in a digital economy

Skills demand in a digital economy

Using job postings data, we’ve developed a demand-driven taxonomy of digital skills to uncover the specific combinations of digital and soft skills employers are looking for
Skills demand in a digital economy

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Creig Lamb
Senior Policy Analyst
Viet Vu
December 17, 2019
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Canada’s economy is fast becoming a digital one. In 2017, the value of digital activity across the economy totalled $109.7 billion, or 5.5 percent of Canada’s total economic activity. All this digital activity requires a digitally adept workforce. From 2010 to 2017, jobs associated with the digital economy grew over four times faster than the economy as a whole, reaching a total of 886,000. Meanwhile, the digital requirements in jobs across the economy are also increasing

However, rarely are digital skills alone enough to land a job. As demand for digital skills increases, so too does demand for candidates with a suite of soft skills to augment digital tools. But while we have a fairly good sense of the direction of changing skills demand, we lack visibility into the specific skills Canadian employers are looking for.  This can inhibit our ability to effectively prepare workers to succeed in this rapidly changing job market. 

To help better understand the demand for digital and complementary soft skills across Canada, we partnered with Burning Glass to investigate nearly 7 million English-language job postings from 2012 to 2018, containing 13,000 unique skills. Drawing on this large dataset, we have developed a new, demand-driven taxonomy for understanding the full spectrum of digital skills. Using this novel definition of digital skills, we also identify the specific combinations of digital and soft skills Canadian employers are looking for. Our aim is to empower service providers, product developers and policymakers with the granular data they need to translate insights on the importance of digital and soft skills into practice. 


Despite a growing narrative around the importance of learning to code, the most in-demand digital skills across the Canadian economy are the least digitally-intensive, which we call workforce digital skills. These skills show up in roughly 1/3 of all job postings in Canada.

Some of the key takeaways from our research include:

Digital skills exist as a spectrum, requiring different levels of knowledge and expertise

Digital skills are diverse; they vary significantly in terms of their purpose, where they are needed, and the knowledge and expertise required to master them. Building off of our existing understanding of digital skills, we leveraged Burning Glass data to define in-demand digital skills across Canada.

We found that digital skills, broadly speaking, fall into one of four categories. First, are the less digitally intensive, general workforce digital skills. This includes broadly applicable, highly in-demand digital skills such as the ability to use Microsoft Excel. Next, are data skills that also appear across a variety of occupational and industrial contexts. These skills vary from baseline data skills applicable across the economy, to more specialized, digitally-intensive data skills, such as the skills associated with machine learning and other data science techniques. The last two clusters are the most digitally-intensive: system infrastructure, which includes skills ranging from setting up and managing cloud computing services to more general IT support; and software and product development, which includes skills pertaining to the generation of new digital products both web and software-based.

Canadians, regardless of where they work, require a basket of workforce digital and complementary soft skills

Despite a growing narrative around the importance of learning to code, the most in-demand digital skills across the Canadian economy are the least digitally-intensive, which we call workforce digital skills. These skills show up in roughly 1/3 of all job postings in Canada. 

In particular, Canadian employers are looking for skills associated with using the Microsoft Office Suite, as well as other more digitally intensive general office skills such as SAP, an enterprise resourcing software.

Unsurprisingly, the most common skills appearing alongside workforce digital skills are communication and organizational skills. Others include interpersonal skills such as teamwork, collaboration, and customer service; project management skills such as budgeting and planning as well as more general skills and aptitudes such as problem-solving and detail-orientedness. 

Data skills are critical and can serve as a bridge between occupations

Data is becoming an indispensable component of our economy. By 2018, investment in data, databases and data science reached an estimated $29 to $40 billion. For workers, data skills are not only some of the most in-demand digital skills, but they can also serve as a link between less and more digitally-intensive roles. 

For example, if a worker is proficient at Microsoft Excel, learning SQL could give them a leg up for more digitally-intensive role.. Microsoft Excel is the single most in-demand digital skill in Canada, with over 741,000 mentions in the 6-year period. And as a general spreadsheet program, it is applicable across the economy. SQL, a database querying software, is much more digitally-intensive, but is also the 5th most requested digital skill in Canada. While these skills sit within two distinct clusters of digital skills with different levels of digital intensity, there are many instances in which an employer asks for both Excel and SQL in the same job posting.

As jobs become more digitally intensive, non-digital skills tend to become more important, not less

Canada’s growing tech and digital economy is reflected in the large number of times employers asked for more digitally intensive skills, such as general software development skills (the 7th most requested digital skill in Canada), as well as specific programming languages such as Java (the 10th most requested digital skill in Canada).

But when employers are hiring for these more digitally intensive positions, they also emphasize non-digital skills. In fact, the proportion of non-digital skills requested in a job posting is highest for the most digitally intensive jobs. This likely reflects the creative and collaborative nature of these roles. 

It also means that employers are looking for particularly dynamic candidates with technical domain knowledge augmented by strong communication, teamwork, problem-solving, and project management skills. For current and prospective workers in these fields, strong digital skills are necessary, but insufficient. It is perhaps just as critical to enhance soft skills and abilities.


Using job postings data from Burning Glass, this research makes two crucial contributions to our understanding of the demand for digital and non-digital skills. First, we improve and clarify our understanding of digital skills as a spectrum that appear in four distinct, but connected, clusters. The definition we established and tested provides jump-off point to further examine the demand for digital skills in the Canadian labour market. For more information, please see our separate, downloadable document outlining our digital skills definition and methodology. Second, we advance our understanding of skills demands by outlining specific combinations of digital and soft skills Canadian employers are looking for to help workers, educators, and policymakers better anticipate and prepare for current and future skills demands.

For media enquiries, please contact Lianne George, Director of Strategic Communications at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship.