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People walk through the business district in downtown Toronto on July 30.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Lisa Lalande is chief executive officer of Century Initiative.

You can’t win a war if you’re unaware you’re in the fight. And right now, unbeknownst to many, Canada is fighting a global war for talent.

Put simply, we’re focusing our energies on smaller battles without appreciating the bigger picture.

In what could be the most politically consequential budget of its time in office, the Trudeau government has unleashed a slew of investments aimed to win those battles. A national school food program, investments in Arctic security, a $1.5-billion rental protection fund, a $500-million youth mental-health fund, and $2.4-billion for the artificial-intelligence industry, to name a few.

These investments address legitimate national priorities, but no programmatic solution will serve its intended purpose without the talent required to execute it. As a country, we must completely rethink how we recruit, retain and support our most important asset: our people. And in this vital aspect of the larger fight, we’re failing.

One hardly needs to underline the cost of this failure in the here and now. Canadians are struggling against these consequences every day. Our productivity is lagging. Our GDP growth is dwindling. And economic opportunity is disappearing.

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Few data points tell the story more clearly than Canada’s dependency ratio, which measures the proportion of dependants to the working-age population. Canada’s was 44 per cent in 2010, 52 per cent in 2021, and is projected to rise as high as 64.7 per cent by 2068. That’s not mere “bad news” for our labour market, that’s a cliff on the horizon.

By 2043, one in four Canadians will be 65 years or older with a large portion of these Canadians exiting the work force. In just the construction sector alone, 25 per cent of those currently employed expect to retire in the next 10 years.

Common sense dictates that an economy without enough people to work is one destined for disaster.

Preventing it requires us to grasp that this alarming statistic about the construction sector is just one of many. Together, they send a clear message that our talent pool is running dry exactly in the areas where we can least afford it: Housing. Health care. Technology.

We need smart, targeted growth in line with our talent gaps and needs to mitigate these trendlines. And while immigration is crucial, to truly conquer the war, we must also enhance opportunities for our current population.

As one example, there have been positive steps in building the Indigenous economy, including higher rates of new business creation among Indigenous peoples compared with the population over all. We need to build on this progress with government, business and labour exploring further opportunities for partnership and Indigenous-led development.

The need to expand work-force participation and economic opportunity extends across demographics and can be addressed in three specific areas.

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First, skills development. In a destabilizing year for the postsecondary institutions, work with provinces and territories to support expanded program delivery, particularly in health care, technology and skilled trades, is urgently needed. Employers, who share an interest in investing in their work force’s development, should also be given incentives for work-integrated training programs.

Second, retention. We have enormous untapped potential among Canadians who are already here. And the plain truth is the longer it goes untapped, the greater the risk that talent leaves. Indeed, 0.7 per cent of our population leaves for the United States every year, with independent research showing tech workers are paid more than 46 per cent more in the U.S.

Clearly, we need policies that encourage growth and scale for our own innovators, expanding their ability to offer competitive pay. Additionally, pathways should be created for temporary foreign workers to secure permanent positions and residency. These measures must be coupled with investments that enhance quality of life, such as affordable housing, health care and child-care capacity.

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Third, fixing the credential mismatch. More than 25 per cent of immigrants with foreign degrees end up in jobs that they are overqualified for, with an RBC study suggesting that credential inefficiencies cost the Canadian economy as high as $50-billion annually. We must do far more to ensure that immigrants find employment that matches their skills and qualifications, including exploration of mutual credential recognition agreements with prominent source countries.

Budget 2024 lays out a vision for Canadian housing, affordability and job creation, with a wide-ranging slate of new programs and investments. If we want them to succeed, they must be coupled with a vision for a skilled, resilient and adaptive work force.

A made-in-Canada pathway to prosperity begins and ends with talent – let’s ignite that talent with the vital boost it needs.

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