Beyond the rhetoric: Finding solutions for Canada’s skills challenges

Letters to the Editor (The Guardian)
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Alberta Education Minister Jeff Johnson is the Chair of the Council of Minister of Education of Canada and will be leading 2 1/2 days of talks with that group before they join the labour ministers and industry reps this week in Charlottetown.

By Paul Davidson (guest opinion)

One hundred and fifty years ago, the Fathers of Confederation gathered in Charlottetown to reimagine the future. Another gathering of leaders in P.E.I. this week won’t result in a new country, but it has the potential to reimagine the future of skills development in Canada and set us on a better path to prosperity.

By bringing together key  players — provincial ministers of education and labour, educators and business leaders from Canada and abroad — the Skills for the Future symposium is an opportunity to explore solutions to our labour market needs, now and in the years to come.

Much has been said of the skills gap in Canada, but we have generally failed to get to the root of the problem and take action where real challenges exist. Unfortunately rhetoric has drowned out evidence, and anecdote has trumped data. This must change.

Getting things right in education and training for a more prosperous Canada will require three things: better and more accurate labour market information; an approach to skills development that includes all levels of postsecondary education – universities, colleges, polytechnics and trades; and stronger collaboration between government, educators and business.

Recent efforts to promote skilled trades by devaluing the benefits of university education take Canada in the wrong direction. Comments about how a whole generation of higher education graduates is lost are corrosive and unhelpful — especially when the evidence shows university graduates enjoy high employment and strong incomes.

Students can’t make career decisions and governments can’t make policy decisions based on myth or anecdote or a newspaper story about the situation in the U.S., where the system is very different from our own.

And we must resist the urge to focus on short-term needs over the next six or 12 months. We need to set our sights on what Canada will need five, 10, 20 and more years down the road.

I was very pleased to see a consensus on this issue emerging at the National Skills Summit in Toronto, hosted by Economic and Social Development Canada Minister Jason Kenney on June 25. Participating leaders from business, government and education recognize the need for longer-term solutions and to improve collaboration. Recent federal reinvestment in enhanced labour market information is a positive development.

Another important step is to realize that Canada’s skills challenges need to be met on several fronts at once. Just because Canada may need more plumbers or welders doesn’t mean it needs fewer university grads. In the fast-paced and rapidly changing global economy, we need more university graduates, more college graduates and more tradespeople if we are to develop the human potential of our country to its fullest extent. Today’s employers need high-level skills at all levels of operations — from the shop floor to the boardroom.

In fact, a recent CIBC study found that the most in-demand occupations in Canada today require a university degree. Yet we’ve fallen from fifth place in university participation to 15th amongst OECD countries.

Finally, government, business and educators have to create more experiential learning opportunities for all students, such as internships and co-ops. We have a good foundation on which to build. Today half of Canada’s university undergraduates have a co-op or internship experience before they graduate. Co-op enrolment has jumped by 25 percent in the last seven years, and more than 1,000 co-op programs are offered at 59 universities.

Universities are dynamic and responsive institutions. Some 45 Canadian universities have developed entrepreneurship degree programs and provide workshops, facilities, mentoring and other supports to students and researchers to help them commercialize product and service ideas.

Strengthening linkages between universities and employers in all sectors will further enhance the skills that graduates bring to their careers.

Close to one million Canadians will earn their first degree between now and the time we celebrate Canada’s sesquicentennial in 2017. Some of them will still be in the labour force when Canada celebrates its bicentenary in 2067.

If we get skills development right, we will have equipped them to navigate a lifetime of adapting to the labour market of the future — and ensured Canada’s prosperity for decades to come.

 

Paul Davidson is president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. He is attending a meeting of labour ministers from across Canada and other stakeholders gathering in Charlottetown today for the Skills for the Future summit. He recently took part as a panelist in federal minister Jason Kenney’s national Skills Summit in Toronto June 25.

Organizations: National Skills Summit, CIBC, OECD

Geographic location: Canada, Charlottetown, P.E.I. Toronto U.S.

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