Railroads. Snowmobiles. Even the smartphone. Canada and its engineers have always found inventive methods to build and connect across an immense landscape. But without enough young Canadians enrolling in engineering programs, this legacy is in jeopardy.
Canada is facing a shortage of engineering talent. A recent report by Engineers Canada shows growth in mining, transportation, and energy, along with 95,000 Canadian engineers retiring by 2020. With current immigration trends not slated to fill the gap, Canada's future depends on nurturing its brightest problem solvers to become the highly skilled engineers of tomorrow.
In 2011, Canada produced fewer than 12,000 new engineers, while India and China produced a combined 3.5 million. The U.K. is twice as populous as Canada, but produces seven times as many engineers. And no, we don't have enough either.
The recipe is there – whenever I work with Canadians in the Dyson laboratories or abroad, it's obvious that Canada is already equipped with engineering potential. Despite a relatively small population, four of Canada's largest universities were named among the world's top 50 engineering schools last year.
Canadian engineer Joseph-Armand Bombardier dreamed of a vehicle that could "float on snow," and created the first snowmobile. His legacy continues to this day, with the firm that bears his name being just as inventive. Its engineers are developing rail cars that predict their own maintenance needs, helping Bombardier become the world's leader in passenger rolling stock.
Other Canadian engineering success stories like BlackBerry make headlines all over the globe, with its latest Z10 and Q10 devices hopefully spurring a revival. And no matter where in the world we are, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, commander of the International Space Station and a trained engineer, soars above us at 462 kilometres per minute.
But even with Canadian high-school students ranked in the top ten for international math and science scores, not enough young Canadians are attracted to – or graduating from – engineering programs.
Last year, a low proportion of graduates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) meant the Conference Board of Canada gave a C grade for Canadian post-secondary education in these fields.
So what's the solution? Canadians, much like Britons, must continue to get young people interested in engineering at an early age. Children already have a natural spark for engineering. Educators, policymakers, and parents must fuel that spark and keep them imagining, building – and ultimately pursuing a career in engineering.
Canada's National Engineering Month in March is a start – students across the country built model bridges, experimental structures and designed devices of the future. And the Canadian government, with Canada's Perimeter Institute, is creating classroom kits that share the benefits of a STEM career with every Ontario high-schooler.
In 2011, The James Dyson Foundation also donated the Engineering Lab at Vancouver's Science World. Here, almost a million children have learned valuable engineering skills by constructing elaborate marble chutes out of varied materials and dissecting mechanical machines to get at their guts.
But in order to engineer a prosperous future, more young Canadians must be inspired to engineer, to understand through disassembly, and to solve problems. It is up to government to set the example, and over to universities and industry to lead the way in their own fields, and through supporting the next generation. Engineers, with their combination of logic, dogged intention and creative imagination, are the ones to meet the challenges the world faces.
The opportunity is huge, and a Canadian legacy depends on it.
Sir James Dyson is a British industrial designer, and founder and chief engineer at Dyson. He is challenging university and college students to submit their best inventions for the 2013 James Dyson Award until Aug. 1 at jamesdysonaward.org.