Keynote Address to the Canadian Chamber of Commerce 2013 Annual General Meeting
Kelowna, British Columbia, Sunday, September 29, 2013
Thank you for your warm welcome. It is an honour to be the first governor general of Canada to address the annual general meeting of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
This organization plays such an important role in the vitality of our business community and, therefore, in the life of our country.
The Canadian Chamber of Commerce is the network of networks, bringing together chambers and boards of trade from across Canada. You represent tens of thousands of businesses of all sizes—businesses that are essential to so many Canadian communities and livelihoods.
The scope of your mandate reminds me, in fact, of something my predecessor, John Buchan, quipped upon being named governor general in 1935.
“Canada,” he said, “is a biggish job.”
That is truly said, and that is why I am so pleased to have the opportunity to speak with you today.
No matter what size your operation, running a business is also a “biggish job,” made even bigger by the fact that entrepreneurs today must look not only within Canada but beyond our borders for success.
The Canadian Chamber of Commerce has identified 10 key barriers to competitiveness in Canada today, and I would like to focus my remarks on one of those barriers in particular: the Canadian business community’s need for skilled workers.
To quote from your website:
“Canadian business has reached the tipping point in its skills and labour shortages. A crisis that had been hidden by the recession has become fully apparent. The labour market is affected by a demographic shift resulting in retirements and a growing mismatch between the skills needed and those available.”
Not long ago I spoke with Harvey Weingarten, chair of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, on this very subject.
He neatly broke down the skills issue as follows.
First, Canada currently doesn’t have enough technically-trained people—tradespeople, technicians and engineers, for example.
Second, business owners say there aren’t enough people with the right kind of skills: leadership, project management, adaptability and communication skills.
And finally, Canada isn’t creating enough of the people who create the jobs—the builders, creators and innovators.
With these challenges in mind, I would like to raise four key themes with you today:
We must recognize that the availability (or lack) of skilled workers and innovators occurs within a broader context, one that requires us to think strategically and look at the bigger picture when solving problems.
In other words, we must adopt an “ecosystem” approach to driving prosperity and enhancing the well-being of Canadians.
As businesspeople, I think you will agree that in the 21st century, science, technology and innovation comprise an ecosystem that is fundamental to your success—and to Canada’s success—now and in the future.
Whatever type of business you run, your ability to employ and profit from—rather than try and play catch up to—science, technology and innovation (or STI, for short) will largely determine your success in the years to come.
This is true for all businesses, whether one calls the drive to create efficiencies and improve business practices and products “research and development” or not.
Furthermore, as the authors of the biannual State of the Nation report published by the Science, Technology and Innovation Council have indicated, three key pillars underpin Canada’s STI ecosystem: business, knowledge and talent.
To summarize what I’ve said so far: robust business activity and knowledge and talent levels reinforce our STI ecosystem, which in turn—in a virtuous circle—nourishes business, knowledge and talent.
This, then, is our context—our ecosystem, if you will. It is characterized by a high degree of interdependence, and therefore by the need for continuous dialogue and collaboration.
Now let me come down from the realm of the theoretical and share a specific example from my own experience of the power of collaboration, the second theme I want to speak of today.
For many wonderful years I was privileged to serve as principal of McGill University in Montreal, and one of the projects I worked on during my time there was to help establish a professional master’s degree program in engineering.
The program was developed along with five other regional universities and the local aerospace industry, which had set us in motion with a specific problem: in the absence of a sufficient number of qualified Canadian employees, companies were being forced to recruit talent from abroad. Furthermore, after gaining valuable work experience in Quebec, many of those foreign employees soon returned to their home countries or left for other destinations, leaving the aerospace sector facing a constant shortage of workers.
The solution was to cultivate a workforce in Canada able to fill those jobs. Once this goal was identified, we worked towards it through constant communication and close collaboration.
This was a key component in the remarkable success of Quebec’s aerospace industry.
As a related aside, you may have heard about the successful maiden flight of Bombardier’s new CSeries jet—a great day for aerospace engineering in this country, and proof that good things happen through collaboration.
This success story brings me to my third theme: the importance of having great expectations, of ourselves and of each other.
What do I mean by this? Well, if we accept that business, knowledge and talent underpin our STI ecosystem, it follows that we must have high expectations of Canadian businesses and learning institutions—of their ability to innovate and to equip people with the essential skills for success.
And, in turn, employers and educators must have great expectations of one another.
In my experience, when you expect the best from people, you very often get the best.
Of course, in life as in learning, one only gets what they give, so it’s not enough to just sit back and make demands of others.
Rather, if Canada is going to continue to develop as a smart, caring and prosperous society in the 21st century, we all must give our best, and ask the best of others in return—working together in a spirit of goodwill and common cause.
Take education. Economists agree that a better educated work force equals a more productive work force and, as the OECD’s recent “Education at a Glance” report points out, 51 per cent of adult Canadians have some kind of postsecondary credential. That puts Canada at number one in the 34-country OECD—cause for celebration!
Break down the numbers, however, and we see room for improvement in specific areas. To give just one example, consider university attainment among those aged 25-34. In that category, Canada has slipped to 15th place in the OECD.
This is significant because in today’s world, all learning is important. To quote Paul Davidson of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, “just because we may not have enough plumbers and pipefitters does not mean we have enough BAs.”
It is not either/or, but rather both/and. What is needed is a higher rate of postsecondary education across the board.
As businesspeople, you have an important role to play. The level of your expectations as employers for a workforce that is highly skilled and educated can have a real impact on Canada’s productivity.
At the same time, you also have a responsibility from the “supply side,” in terms of jobs, opportunities and resources.
As employers, you can help to nurture Canada’s culture of learning by welcoming our graduates and affording them the opportunities to put their talents to work in meaningful ways.
Having worked with university students and graduates throughout much of my professional career, I know you will not be disappointed by the energy, talent and ingenuity they bring to your business.
It’s another virtuous circle. Raise your expectations for an educated workforce, and then help graduates to find opportunities to meet and exceed those expectations.
Who wins? You do, they do—we all do.
Let me share with you another story, this one on the theme of expectations and of leadership— my fourth and final theme today.
Now bear with me—the story takes place in 1956, but I assure you it is both timely and relevant!
The story begins with a speech being given to the Rotary Club of Kitchener-Waterloo by a man named Ira Needles, who at the time was the president of B.F. Goodrich Canada.
Business was good, but Mr. Needles had a problem.
Can you guess?
Not enough skilled workers. In his case, the desired workers were engineers to work in his tire factory in Waterloo.
He also knew that Canada as a nation needed a greater focus on science and engineering—recall this was the time of the Cold War.
Mr. Needles’ speech to the Rotary Club was therefore named, “WANTED: 150 000 Engineers,” and it was subtitled “The Waterloo Plan,” because he had a plan for action, and it was going to begin right there in Waterloo.
The solution he proposed was an innovative, co-operative model of post-secondary education that would pair classroom study with on-the-job workforce experience.
Today, that “solution” goes by the name of the co-op program at the University of Waterloo.
Ira Needles was the university’s founding chairman of the board and, later, chancellor.
Of course, both the co-op program and the university are today great successes, and it is interesting to consider the central role that Mr. Needles—who was a member of his local Chamber of Commerce, I should note—played in addressing his industry’s need for skilled workers.
He was a visionary and a catalyst for innovative change in education, and a bold leader.
You all know that good businesses don’t exist without good people.
It is equally true that great leadership is an essential ingredient of the success of any enterprise, no matter the size.
Your leadership as Canadian businesspeople is so important—obviously to your own success, but also to our success as a nation. If Canada’s science, technology and innovation ecosystem is to prosper and grow, it will in good measure be a result of the business community’s leadership.
Business innovation is one area of particular opportunity.
To again draw on STIC’s State of the Nation report:
“Business innovation is an engine of productivity growth, increased international competitiveness and higher living standards.”
And simply put, on productivity, competitiveness and living standards, we can do better.
On the key indicator of business enterprise expenditures on research and development, or BERD, as a percentage of GDP, Canada has fallen to 25th place in the OECD.
As STIC concludes:
“Canadian firms will need to become more innovative in order to maximize their success in the global economy.”
Their success, and our success.
Fortunately, I know that in Canada, as in this very room, we have an abundance of leaders who can and are making a difference.
My message to you is: don’t hold back.
Be constantly aware of your local and global context.
Reach out to others and collaborate widely.
Set high expectations of others and of yourself.
And finally, have the courage of your convictions, and be a leader in building the smarter, more caring and prosperous Canada of tomorrow.
I wish you every success.