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"Today the physics of cancer are known; what remains is massive engineering."

That assertion, from an article in Time magazine about new approaches to cancer research, could apply not just to biotechnology, but to the entire spectrum of engineering disciplines.

The critical need for specialized engineering exists not only in cancer research, biotechnology and health care, but in cloud computing and information technology, embedded systems, nanotechnology, advanced automotive systems, water purification, and the rapidly advancing "Internet of Things." A recent study by McKinsey Global Institute points to 12 technologies where innovation will be worth $14-trillion (U.S.) to the world economy by 2025.

The shortage of engineers with postgraduate education and skills, therefore, can, and absolutely must, be reversed.

The Canadian Graduate Engineering Consortium, a unique and progressive recruitment initiative, has brought together five of Canada's top universities – McGill University, the University of Toronto, the University of Alberta, the University of British Columbia and the University of Waterloo – to address this country's urgent need for qualified engineers to tackle today's highly complex technical, social and environmental challenges.

Current challenges include finding clean, renewable sources of energy, protecting access to clean water, advancing health care through better-designed information systems and medicines, building safe, livable cities, and ensuring cybersecurity for Canadian companies and citizens.

This is the first time engineering faculties in Canada have formally put in place a national platform to address the need for trained postgraduate engineers. The need was highlighted in a recent labour market report by Engineers Canada, which revealed a troubling imbalance in the Canadian economy.

While there is an abundance of Canadians seeking work as engineers, there is, at the same time, an acute lack of people with the advanced skills required to compete in today's rapidly changing global economy. The result is a labour shortage that affects Canada's competitiveness on the global stage and the standard of living of people in Canada and around the globe. To complicate matters, the report estimates that 95,000 Canadian engineers will retire by 2020.

The economy of the future will be driven by innovation and knowledge. Research and development to fuel innovation is largely conducted by postgraduate degree holders, yet Canada lags seriously in producing them. The fraction of the population graduating with a PhD in any field places Canada at 27th spot in the world, behind almost every other industrialized country and with rates less than half of our major European competitors, according to the OECD's 2009 science, technology and industry scoreboard. Of these PhDs, a relatively smaller fraction is in engineering than is typical of our peer nations.

In a September, 2013, interview in Maclean's magazine, home appliance king Sir James Dyson said that as India, China and other emerging economies churn out engineers, countries including Canada and the United Kingdom are experiencing a shortage that could become "enormous." Other nations have realized the need for engineers," Mr. Dyson said. "We still haven't."

Pearl Sullivan, dean of engineering at the University of Waterloo, said that the challenge for the 21st century isn't simply to produce more engineers, it is to produce experts in a broad range of specializations so they can support research-based innovation within Canadian industry. These experts not only solve technically challenging problems, but also create new opportunities for companies by strengthening in-house research and development capacity.

Companies today are already under intense pressure from global competition to offer new sources of value in the marketplace – they cannot readily develop entirely new products and technologies without sustained scientific advancement. The dependence on engineers to translate ideas into tangible products is universal. Unless we urgently address our relatively small expert base, Canada could quickly fall behind as a technological leader.

Engineering graduate studies programs across our country offer extraordinary research and professional development opportunities to provide students with the depth of engineering knowledge and tools Canada requires. Research-based graduate students generally receive sufficient support to cover tuition and basic living costs through scholarships, research assistantships and teaching assistantships.

By continuing to offer leading-edge graduate studies programs, the five outstanding universities represented in the Canadian Graduate Engineering Consortium will successfully develop a new generation of engineers who have the rigorous training, ethical grounding, ingenuity and confidence to adapt and succeed in even the most demanding conditions of today and tomorrow. I profoundly hope that our provincial and federal governments will consider funding these programs a national priority.

The message for students is to figure out what you want to do and then become very good at it. A graduate level education in engineering provides the opportunity to develop this level of expertise. The greater payoff is global competitiveness and engineering advances that improve the human condition.

Dr. Bruce Hellinga is a professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering and the associate dean of graduate studies and international agreements at the University of Waterloo.

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