Address and Discussion at the 2nd Skills and Post-Secondary Education Summit 2014
Toronto, Ontario, Thursday, November 6, 2014
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Thank you for your warm welcome. I am pleased to be here to address this gathering on skills and post-secondary education.
I would like to thank the Conference Board of Canada’s Centre Skills and Post-Secondary Education for convening this summit. Advanced skills and quality education are central to Canada’s productivity, economic growth and competitiveness, as well as to our ability to innovate.
I recently returned from State and official visits to Poland, the Netherlands and Belgium, where I was again reminded that Canada must compete with the best on the international stage when it comes to skills and education.
Our context is now thoroughly global, which means all Canadians must work together on this important matter. I would therefore like to thank all of you for devoting your attention to this subject.
Learning and innovations are among the priorities of my mandate, and I have been fortunate to attend a number of meetings on skills and post-secondary education, so let me share with you my understanding of the situation.
First, we have a cultural problem with innovation. This is true among Canadian businesses, as Peter Nicholson pointed out in his report for the Council of Canadian Academies on the subject.
According to Nicholson, long-term analyses by Statistics Canada and the OECD show that Canada’s relatively poor productivity growth is the result of weak “multifactor productivity,” a measure which reflects the effectiveness with which labour and capital are combined in the economy.
“The rate of MFP growth over suitably long periods primarily reflects the combination of business innovation to labour productivity growth – including better organization of work, improved business models, the efficient incorporation of new technology and the payoff from R&D and from the insights of entrepreneurs.”
He concludes: “Canada’s weak growth of MFP indicates that the country’s lagging productivity growth is largely due to weak business innovation.”
His major recommendation is that we must ingrain a culture of innovation in each of our businesses so they consider innovation as a fundamental characteristic of what they do every day.
A second challenge is that Canada doesn’t stack up well compared to the United States in terms of educational attainment levels in the workforce. To quote Canada’s Innovation Imperative, issued by Roger Martin and the Institute for Competiveness and Prosperity:
“Canada’s population has, on average, a lower level of educational attainment compared to those living in the United States, particularly for university graduates. Adjusting the mix of educational attainment in Canada to match the US mix and holding wages constant at each attainment level, Canada’s productivity would be higher by $1,900 per capita.”
His most telling point is that Canadian executives expect less. For example, a high school diploma is enough for us, versus a college diploma in the U.S.; or an undergraduate degree is enough for us, versus a master’s degree in the U.S.; or a master’s degree is enough for us, versus a Ph.D. in the U.S.
This is a problem because, for a range of reasons, lower educational attainment weakens our productivity.
With these and other related challenges in mind, what do we do? Let me raise three key themes with you today:
First, 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 to look at the bigger picture when solving problems.
In other words, we must adopt an “ecosystem” approach to fostering innovation and driving prosperity in Canada.
And, 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.
This, then, is our context. 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, my second theme 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.
This success story brings me to my third and final point: the need to have 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 learning institutions and businesses—of their ability to innovate and to equip people with the essential skills for success.
And, in turn, educators and employers must have great expectations of one another.
In my experience, when you expect the best from people, you very often get the best.
Canada has a number of notable strengths in postsecondary education, including in discovery research, which we can see in our strong record of academic citations.
Canadians are also among the most educated people in the world, measured by credentials, and we have a very strong, comprehensive college system.
But we can do better in other areas, such as the application of knowledge through innovation and commercialization; matching skills to job sector needs; and supporting the efforts of people from underrepresented parts of society to improve their skills and qualifications.
By taking a clear-eyed look at Canada’s strengths and current context, and working together collaboratively, we can improve outcomes in skills and education.
Indeed, if Canada is going to continue to develop as a smart, caring and prosperous society in the 21st century, we must meet this challenge—working together in a spirit of goodwill and common cause.
Once again, thank you for your attention to this important issue. I wish you the very best.