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Co-founder and co-CEO, Prodigy Game.

Is everything okay in Canada's tech scene? Many think so. Many global tech giants are building capacity in our major cities, and our startup ecosystem is proving increasingly lively and promising. Look no further than the Toronto-Waterloo corridor (aptly coined Silicon Valley North), where more than 5,000 Canadian startups have taken root, all led by talented entrepreneurs with ambitious ideas.

And while Canada boasts world-class universities with leading science, tech, engineering and math (STEM) programs and a growing funnel of VC and government-funding options for small businesses, most stories of Canadian tech are about funding or the "brain drain."

The deeper problem is that we have a serious shortage of tech talent to meet the booming job demand. It's a looming crisis: Startups like ours simply can't fill the jobs we have fast enough to meet our sales projections.

Almost every startup is actively looking for skilled and educated talent. Prodigy Game, the Burlington-based company I co-founded, would hire an additional 100 well-remunerated people to join our team today if only we could find them. We have the opportunity to sustain our rapid expansion, but we can't without the right manpower – and the sector is set to face a shortage of 220,000 tech workers by 2020.

Where's the tech talent?

It's easy to blame this shortage on the "brain drain" of Canadian talent moving down south – and it certainly exacerbates our situation – but the root of the issue is Canada's relatively low proportion of graduates emerging from STEM disciplines. In the recent Statistics Canada census, only 24.8 per cent of Canada's postsecondary graduates were from STEM fields. And that's despite STEM having the fastest rate of job growth in Canada (4.6 per cent yearly growth versus 1.8 per cent for the job market as a whole).

Our universities rank among the best in in the world (the University of Waterloo is dubbed Canada's MIT), but we're not doing enough to encourage and enable students to pursue the disciplines that are going to shape the future work force.

Why aren't enough Canadians graduating from STEM?

Last year, Canadian students ranked among the top performers in science – a stark contrast from math. In Ontario, half of Grade 6 students failed to meet provincial mathematics standards in 2017, compared with 81 per cent and 79 per cent meeting standards in reading and writing, respectively. The proof is in the numbers – students are increasingly struggling in a subject that has the power to open – and close – a lot of future doors.

The root of this is not an ability problem, but an attitudinal one. Math anxiety is very real in Canada, and it's passed down from generation to generation. If parents have a stigma or fear of the subject, it's likely that their children will, too. It becomes a vicious circle. And approaching math with this internalized fear at a young age means that kids are not going to enjoy the subject and ultimately will not learn to their full ability.

Math is also cumulative, more so than science. So, if students are struggling from a young age and have gaps in their foundational math skills, they're unlikely to succeed with more complex concepts in higher grades. We need to think more about early learning intervention.

While the federal and provincial governments have been putting policies in place to improve math scores across the country, I have two qualms with this. First, these conventional methods don't resolve math anxiety. Second, we're not going to see immediate results. We need to alleviate math anxiety through innovative methods, such as gamifying learning so kids can actually enjoy it. We need to make it easy for teachers to encourage problem-solving approaches. We need to make sure that kids advance from early grades without large gaps in their math knowledge.

Moreover, we need an elegant workaround to the conventional solution of simply increasing funds, resources and "math time" in classrooms.

What's at stake?

We are in a rapidly changing, increasingly interconnected and tech-rich world. Yes, the jobs of the future are going to require STEM-educated workers, but the jobs of today need them, too. To build the pool of talent required to fill thousands and thousands of jobs, we need to participate in innovative early learning intervention, so kids can build the skills and confidence they need to pursue STEM disciplines.

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