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Young businessman innovating – drawing an idea for making money.Getty Images/iStockphoto

Toronto-area companies show little interest in innovating and place higher value on efficient, hard work than creative skills despite expert warnings that Canada is lagging behind in the global innovation race, says a new report.

The study commissioned by George Brown College surveyed more than 300 Greater Toronto Area employers, and less than a third said they would invest in innovation to increase long-term profits at the expense of short-term gains. Half the companies said investing in innovation is primarily government's responsibility, while 55 per cent couldn't name a successful local innovator, and only 58 per cent felt fully confident they understood the very meaning of innovation.

The study supports an impression that Canadian companies are often overly risk-averse. Less than half those surveyed think investing in new technologies or innovation skills training would promise a significant return, while only 36 per cent see a major benefit to hiring graduates from schools where innovation is central to the curriculum.

"That was a surprise," said George Brown president Anne Sado. "We're trying to understand why, writ larger, the business community and industry isn't seeing the benefit of [investing in innovation]."

The report surveyed companies of various sizes across an array of sectors ranging from health care and construction to fashion, design and computer companies. High-tech firms showed the greatest interest in innovation, and companies like IBM, Rogers, Bell, Apple and Research in Motion were cited most often as successful innovators.

A strong work ethic was by far the most prized attribute in an employee, while those who do quality work and learn new things quickly also scored highly. But innovative problem solving, creative thinking and having new ideas ranked as secondary concerns.

"We want to help our employer partners understand that innovation and creativity are essential inputs to productivity," said Robert Luke, George Brown's assistant vice-president of research and innovation.

More companies felt colleges are best at equipping students to be innovators than universities, but 74 per cent still said innovative employees are hard to find. And four out of five employers have never partnered with a university or college on research. That's a statistic that surprises Niall Wallace, the CEO of Toronto-based health technology company Infonaut, which joined forces with George Brown in 2008 to create a tracking tool to contain infectious diseases inside hospitals. He has since hired George Brown graduates like 24-year-old Timur Sharaftinov, who worked in the school's research and innovation office.

"He was given an opportunity to think about what's coming next, and how to package that up and deliver that as a solution," Mr. Wallace said. "We really want to nurture that because it pushes us along faster."