This week’s federal budget demonstrates that the government realizes Canada’s innovation challenge is a “people” as well as an “ideas” challenge. Currently, economic growth is being held back by two related conditions – lagging productivity and high rates of youth unemployment (as well as underemployment) at a time when employers are have trouble finding people who possess the right critical and technical skills. In an economy with a growing demand for innovation talent in all sectors, we need to train people to know not just the “why” of knowledge, but the “how-to” of technical talent.
It is time to recognize that Canada is not just part of a knowledge economy, but that the country needs to transition toward a know-how economy.
Budget 2014 aims to shrink the skills gap while boosting innovation and productivity, effectively killing two birds with one stone. Polytechnic education, giving students hands-on training in applied research, stands at the forefront of this new, outcomes-based approach to postsecondary education.
A decade ago, words like “college,” “polytechnic” or “apprenticeship” were absent from federal budgets. The steady recognition of the polytechnic sector’s contribution in the past four budgets shows that Ottawa understands the positive diversity of our postsecondary education system. We welcome the government’s increasingly tangible support for applied education focused on producing highly qualified skilled professionals. Their know-how and training in critical thinking provide vitality to Canada’s small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
While the postsecondary education sector as a whole will benefit from Budget 2014 through the new Canadian Research Excellence Fund and modest increases to the Indirect Costs of Research Program, several other new programs recognize the important role played by colleges and polytechnics. Initiatives like the $10-million College Social Innovation Fund and the $100-million Canada Apprentice Loan signal the government’s focus on levelling the playing field. Whether it is internships, apprenticeships or applied research involving students, there is a common thread running through these measures that focuses on the need for more and better experiential learning.
The interest-free Canada Apprentice Loan initiative expands the existing Canada Student Loans Program to help some 400,000 apprentices in Red Seal trades such as carpentry or plumbing. For too long, federal policy has treated apprenticeship as a type of employment, not as a form of education. Apprentices are fundamentally learners, and we have a responsibility to treat them as such. This new program will enable more apprentices, particularly mature learners, to complete their certifications, helping to reduce Canada’s skills gap.
The College Social Innovation Fund will connect college students with the community-based applied research needs of not-for-profit and community organizations. To date, college collaborative applied research for private-sector innovation has received support from the research granting councils; the social sector, not so much. Not only will this new fund help students acquire the skill-sets they need to make a difference in places where Canada needs it most, but it also fulfills society’s moral imperative of helping those in need.
Finally, while much is being said about Budget 2014’s emphasis on internships, it is important to note that these new internships have specific parameters. There is $30-million for a program to place young innovation-literate graduates who know how to do industrial R&D for Canada’s SMEs – the very firms that need to innovate and grow. This is a clear indication that government accepts that addressing Canada’s productivity and skills challenges requires bridging the gap between innovation and talent.
Together, these programs will prepare more young people for the jobs employers tell us they need to fill. They will bring more research to non-profit organizations that, to date, have been left out of business R&D funding. They provide greater funding for collaborative applied research – the kind in which colleges and polytechnics excel. As a result, college and polytechnic students and faculty in departments such as early childhood education, hospitality and applied health, not just those in technological and engineering disciplines, will be involved in applied research.
The College Social Innovation Fund and Canada Apprentice Loan programs reflect the advocacy of Polytechnics Canada, an association that represents Canada’s top research-intensive colleges – leaders in applied research, leaders among degree-granting colleges and institutes and leaders in college-based apprenticeship technical training. The result is seen in the high rates of graduate employment across all our programs. Our ideas found their way into the budget because they were modest, evidence-based, actionable, and not grounded in a culture of entitlement.
These key measures in this budget invest in made-in-Canada technical talent, talent that is trained at Canada’s polytechnics and colleges, as we turn from a purely knowledge-based economy to a know-how economy.
Nobina Robinson is CEO of Polytechnics Canada, an alliance of the country’s leading research-intensive colleges, institutes and polytechnics that are also leaders in college delivered trades training. Polytechnics Canada is a member of the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum.