Educational reform required to fix skills shortages

Statistics Canada data shows that employment in the professional, scientific and services sector hit a record high in December while factory jobs have continued to decline.

By GWYN MORGAN

Special to the advocate

Statistics Canada data shows that employment in the professional, scientific and services sector hit a record high in December while factory jobs have continued to decline.

The new jobs pay better than the old jobs being lost, a trend that presents an historic opportunity to build national prosperity. But it’s only an opportunity if there are enough workers with those in-demand skills, a fact that Prime Minister Stephen Harper clearly understands.

Addressing a Canada/U.S. business audience in late 2012, Harper stated that producing more skilled workers is “the biggest challenge our country faces”. Harper also stated: “For whatever reason, we know that peoples’ choices, in terms of the education system, tends to lead us to … a chronic shortage of certain skills. They are skilled trades, scientists and engineers.”

A report published last year by The Canadian Chamber of Commerce estimated that by 2016 Canada would face 1.5 million vacancies for skilled jobs. A survey published last month by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, which represents 150 of the country’s largest employers, provided more specific insight. Two-thirds responded that the growing shortage of skilled workers would have a medium to high impact on their major projects and/or investments. Engineers topped the list of workers “most difficult to find and retain,” followed by Information Technology professionals.

Solving skills shortages isn’t just a matter of replacing retiring veterans. The structural shift from lower-skilled manufacturing to higher skilled professional, scientific and services requires substantial growth in the number of Canadians possessing the needed training.

Filling the shortage for these in-demand skills starts with changing what Harper termed “peoples’ choices.” Those people are, of course, students. And the foundation for learning those skills requires an understanding of basic math and science.

This shouldn’t be too difficult because most youngsters are naturally curious about the world around them. Our seven-year-old grandson, for example, is constantly asking me, his engineer-grandfather, questions about everything from the insects and animals he manages to catch to outer space and how airplanes fly.

All too often this nascent scientific curiosity diminishes around the time students enter middle school, mainly because their teachers fail to make science fun by bringing its wonders alive. And, due to a union-driven placement system based on seniority rather than qualifications, many teachers are unqualified to teach science in the first place.

Consequently, students with high potential in math and science make course choices that prevent them from entering any field requiring STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) skills. That means they can’t be Engineers, Information Technologists, Environmental Scientists, Doctors, Pharmacists, Diagnostic Technologists or qualify for many skilled trades.

Worse, many of the high school graduates who have managed to gain the qualifications needed to enter STEM programs are being turned away when they apply to university. Applicants to most Engineering faculties require high school marks averaging upwards of 85 per cent to make the cut, even higher for medicine. Yet universities refuse to reallocate funds to open up more slots for students in these critically needed skills.

A CIBC report published last year confirmed that huge sums are being wasted churning out graduates in out-of-demand fields, such as Arts and Humanities, while turning away thousands of fully-qualified STEM applicants. This is a travesty, both for the students who are blocked from realizing their potential and for the country.

But sclerotic professor union dominated university governance means it won’t change unless the provinces with jurisdiction over those ivory towers force it to happen.

The ability of any nation’s workforce to produce value-creating goods and services determines the living standards of its population. As the proportion of skilled workers rises, so rises national prosperity. And when that proportion falls, growth investment is stymied, incomes drop, tax revenues to fund social programs collapse and the country falls into economic decline. Since the reversal of that decline starts with educational choices made in middle school, the downward spiral may require generations to reverse.

The skills shortage is the biggest challenge our country faces. Meeting that challenge will require the determined and united commitment of every level of government, our educational institutions and business leaders across the nation. A daunting challenge indeed.

Gwyn Morgan is a retired Canadian business leader who has been a director of five global corporations. This column was supplied by Troy Media (www.troymedia.com).

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