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Interim federal Liberal leader Bob Rae at his home in Toronto, Ont.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

This piece is one of a series of high-profile Canadians commenting on the Canadian Chamber of Commerce's Top 10 reasons Canadian competitiveness is dropping.

Complacency is the enemy. That's the message from interim federal Liberal leader Bob Rae when it comes to fixing this country's skills gap. For Canada to compete globally in terms of growth and innovation, he says, we first must address misguided immigration policies, a young – yet vastly underused – native work force, a non-existent national childcare strategy that forces talented women to stay home, and an education system in which a quarter of our students drop out of high school.

Mr. Rae talked with The Globe and Mail about the issues around one of the factors the Canadian Chamber of Commerce identified as a blockage to Canada's competitiveness.

What are we talking about exactly when we talk about the skills gap in this country?

The problem has been brewing for quite a while. Part of it is a generational issue – people are getting into their 60s and 70s. It's no longer possible to talk about the age of retirement, because people are staying longer in the work force. But we're simply not replacing the ones who are leaving in a number of skilled trades, and that's leaving us with a significant gap.

The other issue is harder to put your finger on. Somebody told me an interesting fact: The average age of an apprentice in Ontario is in their 20s, and the average age of an apprentice in western Europe is in their teens. It's really an issue of looking at our educational system well before college and university. We're simply not providing the emphasis we need to in primary school and middle school and high school for kids who will benefit from having a clear path to a skilled trade. And it's taking too long for young people to get there. And we still have a significant dropout rate. Partly, we need to look at the curriculum. It's almost like we're rediscovering our past. The argument used to be that if we provided occupational and commercial programs in high school, people would get streamed out of the academic stream. So in Ontario, there was a complete reversal starting under Premier Bill Davis, who said that we've got to make sure there's a single curriculum for every student. To put a fine point on it, if you take a Grade 9 class today, a quarter of the kids won't finish high school, a quarter will finish high school and then leave school, another quarter will at some point go to college, and another quarter will go on to university. We have to engage the school system and parents more broadly about what the options are and how to build more strongly on the skills side.

That requires an entire overhaul of the education system province to province, though, right?

It does, but if you look at what corporations or other institutions have to do when faced with a challenge, they have to reinvent themselves. And we shouldn't underestimate that challenge.

The other factor we need to take into account, particularly in western and northern Canada, is that half of the aboriginal population is under the age of 25. And the rate of unemployment and underemployment among aboriginal youth is very, very high, so the whole issue of getting skills and getting work has to be addressed on an urgent basis.

Plus, governments are waking up to the fact that the immigration system was skewed very much to telling potential immigrants that the more degrees you had, the better your chance of getting into Canada. And the problem with that – and the labour market is telling us this – is that we have an awful lot of people working in skilled trades, in construction and elsewhere, who do not have papers, and they're here because the market needs their skills. And if they're found, they get sent back home – even if they're settled here and their kids have been in school here for five years. They're rounded up and put on a plane. Which is, frankly, a waste. The fact of the matter is that we need to shift the immigration point system to meet the skills shortages that are there.

How do you anticipate what those skills shortages are going to be, considering the wait times for immigrants trying to get into the country?

Well, that's an issue. The federal government is going to have to look at this policy of ignoring skill levels when they send people away. It seems to me that if an employer can say, 'I really need this person,' why can't we be sensible about it? Another thing is, you've got to look much harder at how we're competing for skilled people with a number of other countries. We are obviously a destination for people around the world, and we have to be much more engaged – stop saying, 'Let's see who applies,' and look at it as an exercise in recruitment.

What are other countries doing that we should be doing here?

The Australians are doing a much better job of marketing themselves as a base for college and university students, and they do a much better job of allowing those students to integrate into the economy after they've graduated. We're punishing kids who are here on student visas – they're punished if they try to get work. These policies are starting to evolve, but it's very slow, and there still isn't enough of a connection between what the Department of Immigration is doing and what the economy really needs.

Are we losing out on some great people coming to this country if we're just looking for the specific skills we need right now?

Yes. Look, the point is, it's always going to be partly supply-driven. I'm not a little-immigration person; I'm a big-immigration person. I think we have to be much bigger about accepting immigrants and doing everything we can to persuade Canadians that this is a huge plus for the country, not a minus. And we can't predict what the jobs will be in five or 10 years – we can't even predict what the industries will be in five or 10 years – so we shouldn't get into that kind of make-believe planning. But we should feel that the more diverse the skill set of the work force and the more we value education as a society – and in education, I include learning a skill or a craft – the more likely we are to get the investment and the jobs that will create growth and make us more competitive.

There's a huge issue around recognizing credentials, which vary from province to province and industry to industry. What's happening to fix that?

I met a guy from Pakistan who spends six months a year working for Médecins sans Frontières as a doctor, and then comes to Canada and drives a cab so his kids can go to school here. Credentials are a continuing challenge for the provinces and for the federal government. I think the provinces are trying to do more. I'm a great believer that the provinces and provincial institutions should be very much on the ground and available to people who are applying for immigration so they can see what the challenges are. We're still not doing enough to bring people together and view this as a national issue. If you look at the impact that skills training and the development of human resources have on competitiveness and the economy, we're not doing enough to come together.

Federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and others are talking about a so-called skills mismatch – the fact that we've got too many teachers, say, and not enough plumbers. What about the value of a liberal arts education?

Well, I'm not one of those people who think you can tell people what to do. People will find their way. I can point out lots of kids who've gone to get a liberal arts education and then decided they needed to get a particular skill at community college. There is definitely a need for people to be much more aware of what the trend lines are in the economy.

To get back to aboriginal people, what are some of the strategies we might use to leverage that community and its extremely young population?

It's starting to happen, and progressive employers across the country, particularly in northern Canada, are realizing that the aboriginal population is going to be a critical work force. They live in the north, they understand the north and, increasingly in forestry and mining, you're seeing a lot of employers saying we have to engage here, because it's in our interests to do so, and it's in the interests of aboriginal people.

What about the role of women? There are a lot of women who are opting out of careers because child care is so expensive. Is that part of the conversation?

It needs to be. It certainly has been – there was a time when [former MP] Ken Dryden and others were working on a national childcare strategy. Quebec is one province that is taking it very seriously. But even in Quebec, there aren't enough spaces. It's affordable, but if you can't get into the program, it's just not there. It's a critical issue. One of the facts that I discovered when I did an education review for [former Ontario] premier [Dalton] McGuinty five years ago is that we have a gap between men and women in high school and university completion, but it's not the gap we used to have. We actually have a majority of women in law school, in med school, in a great many professions. They're starting to catch up in engineering in a dramatic way. There is a quiet revolution under way in the work force. Where it breaks down is when women start having children. At that point, it puts a tremendous burden on the family, and on women in particular. And until we have a progressive policy on child care across the country, the gap between the skills that are there and the people who are actually able to work will continue to grow.

What is all of this doing to our place in the world, in terms of our economy and innovation?

There's no ground for complacency, but we also shouldn't beat ourselves up to the point of saying we haven't got anything right and we're falling badly behind. The fact of the matter is, we start the race with some tremendous advantages. We have a very strong base in natural resources. We have a relatively skilled work force. We have a very diverse population. We have broader access to, and participation in, education than virtually any country in the world. The problem we face is that the world changes so quickly and economies change so quickly and the rate of technological innovation changes so quickly that we can't afford as a country to say we're doing just fine. I think we have to be more conscious of the need for some common policies between the provinces and the federal government, much greater dialogue between educators and business leaders, and a much keener awareness of how to meet the challenges of globalization more effectively. Because we're a relatively small economy. We face these huge trading blocks around us – the Americans, the Europeans, the dramatic transformation that is taking place in Asia that won't slow down – and we've got to do more to get our act together. It's not good enough to say everything will be fine. Because it won't be fine.

If you could make a pitch to the young people of today, what would you say?

Do what you really believe in, and don't let anybody tell you you've got to do this or that. I've always said to my own kids, don't let me tell you what profession you should follow. Take your future into your own hands. But never underestimate the value of education. And by that I mean, never underestimate the value of learning skills, whether it's languages or technical skills or whatever. Because they will serve you well into the future – not only professionally, but also in terms of how much you get out of life.

Join the conversation on Canada's competitiveness by following Canada Competes on Twitter:@CanadaCompetes

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