Big Business says it is worried about a looming skills shortage that, unless rectified, will undermine Canada’s future prospects for a strong and competitive economy.
That’s why, for example, the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE) has been issuing papers expressing alarm over what it sees as a declining quality of education and inadequate skills training and upgrading.
These papers are useful. The latest, by Paul Cappon, spells out a pan-Canadian strategy for education and training.
Cappon, who until 2012 was president of the Canadian Council on Learning, presents a disturbing picture of declining test results for Canadian high school students in science, math and literacy and similarly poor results in international literacy, numeracy and science knowledge tests by Canadian adults, especially those 16-24.
Clearly, much needs to be done to improve the capacity of Canadians to participate in the knowledge economy. Likewise, Canada’s capacity to attract investment and quality jobs will depend on the availability of talent.
But the CCCE puts the burden of action on government, largely ignoring what the private sector could do to help improve education and ensure Canadians have the skills they need.
While government, to be sure, has the overriding responsibility for education, from early childhood development to post-secondary education, business can do much to help.
If this were Germany or Switzerland, for example, business would already be playing an important supportive role.
The CCCE says it has 150 members heading companies that collectively employ 1.5 million Canadians.
Yet how many of these employees get access to serious skills upgrading and training? Canadian companies are notorious for their lack of spending on workplace training.
Corporations also have to do a much better job alerting governments and educational institutions to changing knowledge and skills requirements- their record so far has been abysmal.
Likewise, what kind of commitment do these 150 companies have to apprenticeship programmes for skills development?
Too few seem willing to get serious about apprenticeships.
And with education costs rising, every major company should ensure that it has summer jobs so that students can gain work experience and earn money to help pay for their education rather than accumulating high student debt.
There are many other ways that business can help. One good example comes from Germany, where more than 120 companies support Wissenfabrik, or the Knowledge Factory, working with teachers and schools, starting with kindergarten, to improve science, math and technology education ñ with more than 2,400 educational partnerships with schools and kindergartens.
In fact, German industry works closely with education institutions in vocational education and training.
There is nothing like Wissenfabrik in Canada and no sign that our corporations are prepared to exhibit this kind of leadership.
Wissenfabrik was started in 2005 by a small number of Germany companies, such as Bosch, BASF and ThyssenKrupp, because business executives were concerned about a lack of interest in science, math and technology by students in kindergarten and elementary school, the crucial period when young people are turned on to these subjects or, as happens far too often, turned off.
Industry leaders recognized they couldn’t just lecture politicians.
They had to act as well.
In his report, Cappon stresses that business has to take steps of its own ìto strengthen its credibility as an important voice in Canadian learning, and to make the urgent contributions that Canadians should expect from it.
For example, he says, “the business sector’s poor performance in workplace training and skills development undermines its potential influence on education strategy.”
He proposes that industry set national goals for average expenditure on training per employee, employee participation rates, and number of instruction hours per adult participant.
Cappon also calls on business to become much more active in vocational and technical training, for example through much stronger support for apprenticeships.
The problem is that in Canada employers tend not to see they have any responsibility for training future generations, he says.
“Indeed, the biggest constraint on apprenticeship placements and completions in Canada appears to be the difficulty potential learners experience in securing those positions in industry.”
Industry, he says, should set targets for placements and completions.
It is not enough for the CCCE, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce or other business groups simply to voice alarm about impending skills shortages.
To be credible, they have to become part of the solution by investing some of their own time and money rather than passing the buck to government alone.
Economist David Crane is a syndicated Toronto Star columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.