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The Bay Street Financial District is shown with the Canadian flag in Toronto on Friday, August 5, 2022.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan DenetteNathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Bill Flanagan is president and vice-chancellor of the University of Alberta.

Canada is falling behind in the global race for talent. The country’s economy remains constrained by a tight labour market in sectors critical for future prosperity. Emerging new technologies with tremendous potential will require highly qualified individuals with the skills and ideas we need to capitalize on these new opportunities, from the rapid growth of artificial intelligence to the success of new net-zero energy solutions.

As the federal government’s focus turns to the coming federal budget, the economy faces significant challenges with persistently high inflation and sluggish economic growth. The most recent forecast in the fall economic statement indicated GDP growth in 2024 will amount to only 0.4 per cent. Navigating these challenges will require focused, strategic investments to build the foundation for stable and robust growth.

The demand for skilled professionals is acute, and our decisions today will determine our competitive stance and economic prosperity for years to come. For the number of citizens with advanced degrees, Canada ranks a dismal 28th among nations in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. To match the U.S., Canada would need close to 500,000 additional master’s and doctoral graduates. This talent gap isn’t just a statistic; it represents missed opportunities for our nation’s growth and the industries eagerly seeking skilled professionals.

Examining the labour market reveals a telling shift. While job vacancies have stabilized as the pandemic receded, the demand for highly qualified talent remains unmet. In the third quarter of 2023, there were almost 20,000 vacancies for jobs with advanced degree requirements; in 2015, this number was 8,000. To close this talent gap, we need to bolster federal investments in research to secure a robust tapestry of talent for the future.

The stagnation of federally funded scholarships for graduate students over the past two decades is one glaring example of where Canada is falling behind in attracting and retaining top talent. With inflation, the value of the Canada Graduate Scholarships for master’s and doctoral grants has declined by more than half since 2003. At the same time, federal research grants, which are vital for supporting graduate students and early career researchers, have also stagnated – declining by 15.4 per cent over the past four years when adjusted for inflation, according to Statistics Canada.

Now is the time to push for an ambitious investment to revitalize Canada’s research enterprise and uphold our most valuable resource: the talented individuals who make up our country. And as we confront economic uncertainty and navigate rapidly evolving industries, our reliance on the skills and ideas emerging from Canadian universities will only grow. University-based research is not just a piece of the puzzle; it is a cornerstone in addressing labour shortages and providing the Canadian economy with the talent required to thrive globally.

Without substantial federal support, we face an inevitable brain drain and lost economic opportunities. The call is unequivocal: Invest ambitiously, renew Canada’s commitment to fundamental and applied research, and propel us into a future where innovation flourishes and our economy grows for all Canadians.

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