The following op-ed was published in the Ottawa Citizen, as well as on the websites of the Montreal Gazette, Calgary Herald, The Province, Vancouver Sun, Regina Leader Post, the Saskatoon Star Phoenix and the Edmonton Journal on August 16, 2014.
By Paul Davidson, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada
It’s been debated, misstated, mythicized and widely misunderstood for years. It’s been called a crisis, a lie, a disgrace and a blip. Now, finally, consensus is building about what exactly Canada’s skills gap is, and how we can fix it.
One million undergraduate students will soon be heading to university campuses across Canada for the fall semester, with another 700,000 students setting off for college. These young people need and deserve accurate and meaningful labour market information as they plan their future careers.
We may have turned a corner, in terms of understanding the problem and finding solutions, with two national skills summits held earlier this summer. Both gathered leaders in government, industry and education to reimagine the future of skills in Canada. At the National Skills Summit hosted by Employment and Social Development Minister Jason Kenney in Toronto, participants agreed upon the need for longer-term solutions and better collaboration among their sectors. And at the Skills for the Future symposium in Charlottetown, organized by provincial education and labour ministers, stakeholders discussed the need for higher skills across the labour market.
The dialogue is one that universities welcome. We know that Canada needs skills of all kinds – and that all skills need to be valued – if our country is to remain competitive in the fast-paced and rapidly changing global economy.
The real challenge is trying to predict Canada’s skills needs in the future, and preparing for them today. While the future of our country will be shaped in large part by the educational experience of today’s postsecondary students, Canada has so far failed to properly equip them with the information needed to make decisions about their own futures.
The most urgent priority in addressing Canada’s current and upcoming skills needs is for better labour market information. Students can’t make career decisions and governments can’t develop policy based on anecdote. We need the best possible labour market data drawn from reputable and reliable sources.
Secondly, we need an approach to skills development that includes all levels of postsecondary education. Yes, we need more graduates from apprentice programs, colleges and polytechnics. And we need more university graduates. Consider that Canada has fallen from fifth in university participation to 15th amongst OECD countries (for 25- to 34-year-olds). Trying to promote skilled trades by devaluing the benefits of university takes Canada in the wrong direction.
Think about the impact of media commentaries telling a whole generation of Canadians that their futures are bleak. It’s a corrosive and irresponsible message, especially when the evidence shows high employment and strong incomes for university graduates.
Energy and mining industries, for example, rely just as much on university grads as they do on college grads and skilled tradespeople, but for different types of jobs – including positions in engineering, management and community relations. Since 2008 in Alberta, 56 percent of net new jobs have been for university graduates. That’s almost double the number of net new jobs for college grads and more than triple those for tradespeople.
And finally, we must pursue more than short-term solutions for our country’s skills challenges. We have to look at what Canada will need five, 10, 20 and more years down the road and start preparing now. Narrowly defined skill sets aren’t enough. Employers already require a wide array of skills and abilities, including in technical positions. And many of today’s students will create businesses or be employed in new fields that don’t yet exist. We must equip all students to adapt, collaborate, lead and learn throughout their lives.
We’re taking steps in the right direction. Government, industry and educational institutions are doing more now to support experiential learning, which helps students transition to careers while also bringing fresh ideas to employers. Today, half of Canada’s university undergraduates have a co-op or internship experience before they graduate. But we can do more.
Getting the skills equation right is how we’ll equip a generation of young Canadians to achieve their potential and contribute to a new kind of Canada. In that respect, it’s hard to think of a better investment of our time, energy and resources.
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