Skills and Higher Education in Canada

Canada’s performance in higher education and skills development has been fairly strong for many years. On key measures we are at or near the top of international rankings and our highly skilled people contribute to economic competitiveness, social innovation, and political and community well-being.
But there are troubling indications that Canada’s skills and education performance is deteriorating, that not enough is being done to address a range of economic and social problems, and that opportunities and benefits have been poorly distributed across regions and groups. In short, there are signs that we are not doing enough to achieve the high levels of skills excellence and equity we need. Action is needed to sustain and enhance the performance of higher education and skills development in Canada.
In this paper, Dan Munro explores two central needs to Canada’s skills problem: excellence, and equity.
Excellence means asking the question: is Canada producing graduates with the right skills to sustain and enhance the country’s economic competitiveness and social well-being?
And Equity means asking: Are some regions and groups being left behind?
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Labour is key to being an energy superpower

For six years now Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been referring to Canada as “an emerging energy superpower.” It is a very ambitious goal that comes with significant geopolitical clout, the likes of which this country has not enjoyed in decades, if ever. And it will not be achieved without considerable public policy action, especially from the federal government
While the idea of a “national energy strategy” has been rejected by the Harper government, this government has, nonetheless, taken two steps over the past year to facilitate achieving its energy superpower objective.
The first step has been to open the door to more foreign investment into the oil and gas sector so that this capital-intensive resource can be developed. This was symbolized by agreeing to a Foreign Investment Protection Agreement with oil-thirsty China. Enter the Chinese National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC), which promptly walked right through that door with a takeover bid for Nexen. If this transaction is approved by the feds, we can expect much more investment from China in Canada’s oil and gas sector in future
Ottawa’s second step has been to take an unambiguously supportive position on the building of pipelines to get Canada’s oil and gas into global markets. Earlier this year, Mr. Harper said: “Our government is committed to ensuring that Canada has the infrastructure necessary to move our energy resources to those diversified markets.”
These are the first two steps of the government’s energy superpower plan: attracting capital investment into the oil and gas sector from abroad and building pipelines to deliver product to market.
Both are important but turn out to be rather academic because the third step – ensuring we have the skilled labour pool to execute on these projects – has yet to be taken.
Put bluntly, we simply have nowhere near the skilled trades labour force to satisfy even today’s demands, let alone to fulfill our lofty aspiration to become an energy superpower.
The Construction Sector Council estimates a skilled trades deficit of nearly 160,000 people over the next seven years (which, according to the Canadian Energy Research Institute, is still five years before projected peak oil sands capital investment). Labour force growth is slowing to a crawl, as the country ages, while demand for skilled labour is skyrocketing. This is particularly true in the energy sector (including electricity generation and distribution) where a capital investment spree is under way, the likes of which has not been seen since the 1950s.
It is naive to think Canada can become an energy superpower given the labour market constraints we face and lack of public policy action to address this.
So what might a labour market fix look like?
First, Ottawa should play a greater role in co-ordinating the efforts of provincial governments, industry and educational institutions. It should place a particular focus on apprenticeship training needs. According to Statistics Canada, the graduation rate from skilled trades apprentice programs has been stagnant since the early 1990s, when skilled trades demand was vastly lower than it is today. Apprenticeship systems need to be reformed to meet today’s demands. Ottawa can play a direct role in this through tax incentives to encourage employers to hire apprentices and by doubling the Apprenticeship Incentive Grant. The federal government could also consider providing assistance to employers who train and certify the work force of the future.
Second, the federal government should hold provinces more accountable for the billions of dollars transferred in Labour Market Development Agreements to ensure we get the outcomes industry needs.
Canadians deserve value for money in Labour Market Development Agreements.
Third, it is time to assist Canada’s regional work forces to get to where the work is. A tax credit or an Employment Insurance grant that covers travel to seek employment will improve labour market efficiency. The existing provision in the Income Tax Act that offsets costs of permanent relocations does not apply – this would be to assist shorter-term labour mobility as is required in construction.
Fourth, skilled trades workers from the United States, most of whom are already trained to our standards, should be granted special status to enable them to work on large energy projects in Canada.
The idea of becoming an “energy superpower” is bold and ambitious, characteristics not normally associated with Canadian governments. But let us be clear: You do not become a superpower in anything – in military prowess, in economic might, even in Olympic achievement – without significant public policy action. The federal government seems to realize this, and has taken two important steps by attracting investment, and delivering product to market. But all of it – all of it – hinges on whether or not Canada’s labour market is prepared. On this, the federal government can and must show leadership.
Two steps are good; it is time to take the third.

The New Deal for Skills-Based Graduates

Unemployment rates remain high and the latest data shows an uptick. Why is this, when so many businesses and companies are desperate for trained workers?
The key to addressing this disconnect is to bring balance to the supply and demand for postsecondary graduates. In many sectors, this equation has lost its equilibrium. The proof is found across numerous communities and in many market segments where people’s skills just don’t match the available jobs.
Postsecondary education has been producing a steady supply of graduates, without enough attention to the demand side of the equation. In fact, our success in turning out graduates is in many ways adding to the supply-demand imbalance. The mantra of ‘build it and they will come’ does not serve colleges or their communities well in the short or long term.
The move towards the knowledge-based economy has been underway for decades, gaining momentum and fuelled by capitalism taking flight around the globe with China, India, Brazil and Russia garnering much of the attention. With traditionally weaker economies expanding and driving the emerging economic powers up the value chain the trend for specific-skilled jobs and workers will only accelerate.
How did we get to this point of imbalance? The knowledge-based economy shift has moved many low-skilled, high-paying jobs offshore and left low-paying, high-skilled and professional jobs requiring specific technical skills within our borders. We are faced with the need to raise the education attainment level of our population to ensure we have the skilled labour force needed for continued prosperity.
The framework for responding to this need has created a rush to increase student enrolment without the necessary focus and has yielded undesirable results –an undersupply of graduates in key disciplines, infrastructure that will become increasingly difficult to sustain, and most notably, a lack of innovative solutions and initiatives leading to a slow re-tooling of postsecondary programs.
Our habitual response has failed to recognize two key factors. First, the pool of skilled labour continues to shrink, which creates an urgent need to match graduates to marketplace needs. Second, the conventional way of supplying graduates is unfocused and does not ensure opportunities are met. This is evidenced by the gap between the individual skill sets, high unemployment rates and the unsatisfied needs of the knowledge-based economy.
Today, the economy does not have the capacity to absorb this historical level of waste nor should these historical shortcomings be accepted.
In the past, the unfocused supply could be absorbed within the fabric of the economy, masking inefficiency both in terms of financial and human costs. Today, the economy does not have the capacity to absorb this historical level of waste nor should these historical shortcomings be accepted. The continuance of the old system, primarily focused on supply, is irrational and does not address the challenge before us.
What is required is a new focused framework that is relative to today; that has direct links between the postsecondary student and the employer, with higher education acting as the conduit of knowledge and skill… a new deal that formalizes the link between the employer and future employee – the current student. And most importantly, a strong resolve by the private sector to work with colleges to close the skills shortage gap before it becomes lethal to the health of our economy.
The private sector has been too complacent in redefining and articulating its needs as well as expressing these needs to government, students, and parents – the public at large. Their demands on the education sector to provide specific training has been, for the most part, absent in the public forum.
An action-based approach that flips the current supply-demand approach to a demand-supply model is the most effective and efficient means to close the gap between individuals and the required skill sets, thereby returning balance to the education equation. The need for human capital is unmitigated for industries from finance to manufacturing and construction, according to forecasts from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. Projected shortfalls of workers range from 200,000 to 1.8 million by 2031 according Dr. Rick Miner’s study Jobs Without People and People Without Jobs.
We need a resolute and focused plan that moves us to address the imbalance of our labour supply, where skill sets do not meet opportunity. This demand-driven approach requires a framework that includes proactive human resource planning in the province, a revenue and tax model that accelerates capital investment by the private sector and a learning and skill development incentive program shared by the public and private sector. While targeted investment directed at individual sectors may not be popular or palatable in some jurisdictions, the need to address the skills shortfall requires quick and decisive action. We must do things differently and not be bound by standard conventions to meet our commitments and obligations.
As a college, we will continually evolve our programs and services to fulfill our mandate. This translates into constantly innovating and investing in new programs and services with the support and foresight of industry partners, individuals, alumni and government while divesting from others. A vibrant college always continues to evolve and renew.
A healthy economy, excellent healthcare, high quality education, positive business conditions and secure retirement are dependent upon us reestablishing balance to the education equation by eliminating the gap between the skills shortage and those required by the marketplace.

Skilled trades deficit colliding with energy boom

For many years we have been told Canada faces an acute “skills mismatch,” where the economy has lots of great jobs for the highly qualified – notably engineers, information technology professionals, and science PhDs – without enough of these people to meet the demand.
But a second skills shortage has crept into the economy that promises to dwarf the professionals deficit. This less-talked-about shortage is being driven by two forces on a collision course: unprecedented demographic change and an equally unprecedented boom in one large, growing and labour-intensive sector of the economy.
This is the skilled trades deficit – an acute shortage of electricians, welders, pipefitters, plumbers and carpenters. Exacerbating the problem is the corresponding economic boom in the energy infrastructure sector, with a projected investment over the next 20 years that is breathtaking.
The collision of these forces of declining labour supply and booming energy construction demand requires governments – federal and provincial – to develop a pan-Canadian strategy to meet the challenge and seize the economic opportunity.
Growth in the labour force is slowing as baby boomers retire. Forty years ago, the labour force grew at about 4 per cent a year, on average. A decade from now, growth will fall to almost zero.
This trend is particularly acute in the skilled trades. Between 2011-19, according to the Construction Sector Council, 208,000 skilled tradespeople will retire – with only 111,000 new recruits entering the trades. If you think you have trouble finding an electrician today, wait five years.
This trend is running headlong into two distinct forces on the demand side of the ledger. First is the boom in the oil sands, which depends intensely on skilled trades. Second, and less well known, is a requirement over the next 20 years to refurbish Canada’s aging system for electricity generation and distribution, which has been allowed to atrophy over the past two decades.
The Canadian Energy Research Institute estimates that about 800,000 incremental jobs, many of which are skilled trades, will need to be filled in the oil sands alone over the next 20 years; and that capital investment in the oil sands will exceed $250-billion over that time frame.
Add to this the Conference Board’s estimate that the electricity sector will invest nearly $300-billion over the same period to maintain existing assets and meet market growth, and you have the largest construction boom since the postwar period.
As a result of these two competing forces – unprecedented labour force contraction running up against equally unprecedented demand for skilled trades – the next seven years alone will see the economy coming up short by about 156,000 skilled tradespeople.
On one hand, this is a good-news story. Long-term career prospects in the skilled trades look very promising. But we have nowhere near the number of people in the pipeline today to meet this demand, nor do we have the public policy framework to significantly increase the skilled-labour pool. And as each year passes, we have fewer skilled people to pass along the expertise, making the replacement work force challenge that much greater.
Immigration is an important short-term fix, but it alone cannot solve the longer-term problem. Nor should immigration of skilled tradespeople be seen as the long-term solution for a country with an unemployment rate of nearly 8 per cent, and much higher for some population segments, notably native people and other underrepresented groups.
This historic construction boom represents a unique, once-in-several-generations, opportunity that Canadians should seize upon. Labour market policy is an area of shared jurisdiction. Ottawa has some levers, such as immigration and financing for training; the provinces have others, such as education policy, training programs and credential recognition; and internal labour mobility is shared between the two levels of government.
All these levers need to be pulled in a co-ordinated fashion to ensure that the Canadian economy and Canadian workers reap the full benefit. Canada needs a national work force strategy.