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The Globe and Mail

Rising to the challenge of Canada’s skills shortage

Canadian employment in the professional, scientific and services sector hit a record high in December, while factory jobs continued to decline. And the new jobs pay better than the old jobs being lost, noted Globe and Mail reporter Tavia Grant in assessing the data compiled by Statistics Canada for the newspaper. This trend presents a crucial opportunity to build national prosperity. But it's only an opportunity if there are enough workers with in-demand skills, a fact that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has clearly understood for some time.

Producing more skilled workers is "the biggest challenge our country faces," Mr. Harper told a Canada-U.S. business audience in November, 2012. "For whatever reason, we know that peoples' choices, in terms of the education system, tend to lead us to … a chronic shortage of certain skills. They are skilled trades, scientists and engineers," he noted.

A report last year by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce estimated that by 2016, the country would face 1.5 million vacancies for skilled jobs. A recent survey by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, which represents 150 of the country's largest employers, provided more insight. Two-thirds of respondents said the shortage of skilled workers would have a medium to high impact on their major projects and/or investments. Engineers topped the list of workers "most difficult to find and retain," followed by information technology professionals.

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Solving skills shortages isn't simply a matter of replacing retiring veterans. The structural shift from lower-skilled manufacturing to higher-skilled professional, scientific and services requires substantial growth in the number of trained workers. That begins with changing what Mr. Harper called "people's choices." And those people are students. The foundation for learning specialized skills requires an understanding of basic math and science. This shouldn't be too difficult since most children are naturally curious about the world, how things work and the wonders of nature. All too often their nascent scientific curiosity diminishes around the time they get to middle school, mainly because their teachers fail to make science fun by bringing its wonders alive (many teachers may be unqualified to teach science in the first place). Students who have high potential in math and science may thus make course choices that will prevent them from entering STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math) later on. They won't grow up to be engineers, IT experts, doctors, pharmacists or qualify for many skilled trades.

Worse, many high school graduates who manage to gain the qualifications needed to enter STEM programs are turned away when they apply to university, even with good marks, because universities won't reallocate money to open more slots for students in those programs. A CIBC World Markets report last year confirmed that huge sums are being wasted churning out graduates in out-of-demand fields, such as arts and humanities, while turning away thousands of qualified STEM applicants. This is a travesty, both for the students who are blocked from realizing their potential and for the country. But governance of universities, where tenured faculty members hold sway, won't change unless provinces with jurisdiction over those ivory towers force it to happen.

The ability of any country's workforce to produce value-creating goods and services determines the living standards of its population. As the proportion of skilled workers increases, so does national prosperity. And when that proportion falls, growth investment is stymied, incomes drop, tax revenues to support social programs collapse, and the country falls into economic decline. Because the reversal of that decline starts with educational choices made in middle school, the downward spiral may require generations to reverse.

The skills shortage is the biggest challenge facing Canada. Meeting that challenge will require the determined and united commitment of every level of government, our educational institutions and business leaders across the country. A daunting challenge indeed.

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