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Canada needs a human potential strategy - one that envisions what our population needs to look like 10 and 20 years from now, and that moves all the necessary policy levers to enable Canadians to achieve that goal. Our future prosperity depends on it.

In the global marketplace, our human assets and human potential are our greatest resources, and will determine our ability to compete and win in a world where India and China's emergence looms large.

A national human potential strategy should focus on innovation, lifelong education, immigration and engaging underrepresented parts of the population in the paid labour force. It's this new clarion call that we need to hear from political leaders who may be wondering what next great charge they should be leading.

Our group of five young leaders started our journey to examine national labour issues by focusing on the significant labour movement from the East to Alberta. But we quickly realized that labour mobility is simply a symptom of a far larger issue facing Canada. We are quite simply running out of people.

In B.C., the provincial government needs to find more than 10,000 people over five years to fill in the ranks of those who are retiring. In rural Newfoundland, a McDonald's was not able to open because it could not find enough people to hire. Halifax currently has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. And in booming Alberta, the big oil companies are hiring at a frenetic pace.

We learned that Canada is seeing the initial effects of a tremendous demographic shift. As our baby-boom parents retire, there simply are not enough people our age to fill their jobs - let alone meet the needs of economic growth. What we're seeing is simply the tip of the proverbial demographic iceberg.

Policy makers are trying to adapt in a variety of ways. They are advancing the employment of marginalized populations, developing new training programs to facilitate lifelong learning and creating guest-worker permits. They are trying to make better use of the population we have, and to better engage those we bring in.

However, these efforts barely begin to address the kinds of shortages we will be facing. Ours is not a unique story. Practically every other OECD country faces the same fundamental demographic challenges.

But we are addressing these challenges in a piecemeal, unco-ordinated fashion. Hardly the way to deal with an issue that even the Governor of the Bank of Canada believes will lead to declining growth.

A dramatic shift in thinking, planning and policy direction is necessary. For us, this would start with the prime minister or other national leaders inaugurating a multistakeholder group tasked with leading the development of policy. In an earlier age this might have been a task for a Royal Commission.

Moreover, this is a time for bold innovative policy thinking. Why not fundamentally reconsider our tax system to weigh taxation toward consumption instead of income? This would encourage productivity rather than penalizing labour market participation.

Immigration is also critical to our collective future, in a world where we are competing for each and every person. We need to fundamentally rethink our immigration policy to holistically address the unique needs of immigrants and welcome them to a country they can call home.

What if we created a Registered Immigrant Savings Plan that caters to their unique needs - such as saving for elderly relatives that move to Canada? Or different tax treatment for international remittances? These might make Canada a more attractive destination.

The key is to focus in a co-ordinated manner on broad levers of Canada's human potential. Our political, civil and corporate leaders need to come together to plan for the future. A human potential strategy must speak to each and every Canadian - and should enable each of us to achieve our potential, and find value-adding work in what is clearly an employee's market. Our country's prosperity depends on it.

The question we ask is: Who will lead?

Aaron Pereira, Benjamin Shinewald, Alexis Wise, Stephanie Yates and Rebekah Young are 2006-07 fellows of Action Canada, a public/private partnership with a mandate to promote excellence in leadership in the public and private sectors across Canada.

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