This piece is one of a series of high-profile Canadians commenting on the Canadian Chamber of Commerce's Top 10 reasons Canadian competitiveness is dropping.
Complacency is the enemy. That's the message from interim federal Liberal leader Bob Rae when it comes to fixing this country’s skills gap. For Canada to compete globally in terms of growth and innovation, he says, we first must address misguided immigration policies, a young – yet vastly underused – native work force, a non-existent national childcare strategy that forces talented women to stay home, and an education system in which a quarter of our students drop out of high school.
Mr. Rae talked with The Globe and Mail about the issues around one of the factors the Canadian Chamber of Commerce identified as a blockage to Canada’s competitiveness.
What are we talking about exactly when we talk about the skills gap in this country?
The problem has been brewing for quite a while. Part of it is a generational issue – people are getting into their 60s and 70s. It’s no longer possible to talk about the age of retirement, because people are staying longer in the work force. But we’re simply not replacing the ones who are leaving in a number of skilled trades, and that’s leaving us with a significant gap.
The other issue is harder to put your finger on. Somebody told me an interesting fact: The average age of an apprentice in Ontario is in their 20s, and the average age of an apprentice in western Europe is in their teens. It’s really an issue of looking at our educational system well before college and university. We’re simply not providing the emphasis we need to in primary school and middle school and high school for kids who will benefit from having a clear path to a skilled trade. And it’s taking too long for young people to get there. And we still have a significant dropout rate. Partly, we need to look at the curriculum. It’s almost like we’re rediscovering our past. The argument used to be that if we provided occupational and commercial programs in high school, people would get streamed out of the academic stream. So in Ontario, there was a complete reversal starting under Premier Bill Davis, who said that we’ve got to make sure there’s a single curriculum for every student. To put a fine point on it, if you take a Grade 9 class today, a quarter of the kids won’t finish high school, a quarter will finish high school and then leave school, another quarter will at some point go to college, and another quarter will go on to university. We have to engage the school system and parents more broadly about what the options are and how to build more strongly on the skills side.
That requires an entire overhaul of the education system province to province, though, right?
It does, but if you look at what corporations or other institutions have to do when faced with a challenge, they have to reinvent themselves. And we shouldn’t underestimate that challenge.
The other factor we need to take into account, particularly in western and northern Canada, is that half of the aboriginal population is under the age of 25. And the rate of unemployment and underemployment among aboriginal youth is very, very high, so the whole issue of getting skills and getting work has to be addressed on an urgent basis.
Plus, governments are waking up to the fact that the immigration system was skewed very much to telling potential immigrants that the more degrees you had, the better your chance of getting into Canada. And the problem with that – and the labour market is telling us this – is that we have an awful lot of people working in skilled trades, in construction and elsewhere, who do not have papers, and they’re here because the market needs their skills. And if they’re found, they get sent back home – even if they’re settled here and their kids have been in school here for five years. They’re rounded up and put on a plane. Which is, frankly, a waste. The fact of the matter is that we need to shift the immigration point system to meet the skills shortages that are there.