Jeffrey Doucet is co-founder and chief executive officer of CareerJSM.
In the past decade, there has been unprecedented growth in startups and early-stage companies. When these companies grow and endure, they have a tremendous potential to create new wealth, job creation and tax revenue.
While we can celebrate recent Canadian successes (Shopify's excellent year and initial public offering is a prime example), most of this wealth has been created south of the border. There are more than 150 private companies across the world that are valued at more than $1-billion. The rapid rise of these "unicorns" – startups that exceed that value – reflect the current and future impact software companies are having on our global economy.
While there are some Canadian companies – Kik, Hootsuite, Desire2Learn – that qualify as unicorns, we are largely getting outperformed by other international economies. Adjusting for population size, the United States is outperforming us by a factor of five, a huge gap. We are losing out on job growth, tax revenue and talent.
Our leaders have taken notice. In Ontario, the provincial government has rolled out a number of initiatives aimed at increasing resources available to startup companies. Federally, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government has committed to investing an additional $900-million to an innovation agenda over three years. These programs place an emphasis on subsidizing the cost of growth for startups, making up for a perceived lack of venture capital here in Canada.
While I applaud their intentions, these initiatives are missing the mark. Rather than subsidizing costs for startups that have demonstrated initial traction, our governments need to look at the root cause of entrepreneurship and assess the gaps in our broader education system.
To use a sports analogy, the current strategy would be similar to subsidizing costs for elite athletes, rather than developing a broader strategy to get as many Canadians as possible pursuing athletics.
Canada's comparative advantage should rest in our education system, where we can educate the next generation of innovators. While other countries adapt to the changing landscape, our educators have remained complacent, looking to government to lead the way on innovation.
While Britain became the first major G20 economy to place coding and computer science skills at the heart of its national education strategy, Ontario is seeing declining mathematics grades across the province at the sixth grade level, with a massive drop in students meeting math standards between 2010 and 2016. Last year, just 50 per cent of Grade 6 students in Ontario met provincial math standards. We will not continue to compete internationally if our future grads struggle with math and logic.
Renewed investment in math, science and coding will pay huge dividends in our K-12 education system. But where the government really has a massive opportunity to shape the future of our economy is with targeted investment and curriculum overhaul on our university and college campuses.
Our postsecondary education system has not evolved to meet the needs of the modern economy, and it has certainly not evolved to capture the opportunities driven by entrepreneurship and technology innovation. With more than two million students enrolled in Canadian postsecondary institutions every year, our university and college campuses have a far greater opportunity to spur innovation than any government program.
Entrepreneurs need a wide variety of skill sets, and encouraging interdisciplinary post-secondary education will increase the number of graduates that are ready to lead companies. To compete, our graduates need skills formed in the latest technology programs, which means that universities and colleges need to update their course material and delivery.
Let me give you an example. I have interviewed dozens of entry-level developers over the past couple of months. Unless they have work experience, graduates from top computer science programs have not learned, and are not equipped to work with, modern programming technologies. This needs to change.
We must critically evaluate our technical programs to ensure that students are being taught up-to-date material that is in line with the demands of the economy.
Let's get creative and let's get real. We should also subsidize the cost of postsecondary programs that are in highest demand by technology companies. We talk about the need for more engineers and more technical talent, while the price of these degrees is among the most expensive on our campuses. This logic would be dismissed by any student in first-year microeconomics.
There is a lot of activity in our tech ecosystem, and tech companies appreciate governmental support. But what our tech ecosystem really needs is more high-quality talent that comes ready to work for funded startups, or to start their own businesses.
Let's challenge our education system to be as innovative as the products we want to deliver to the market. Let's create a new generation of entrepreneurs who are ready to build companies, or to work in growth companies as soon as they leave campus. Let's ask our education system and our educators to step up and scale up.