How will Canada keep on top in the global economy? Bill Gates provided his advice, along with an impressive line-up of public and private sector executives and academics, at CanWin. It’s a one-day think tank sponsored each year by the Conference Board of Canada and Microsoft – on innovation, commercialization of research, competitiveness, and management talent. This February’s conference was dedicated to considering how Canada can develop the skilled workforce that will be needed to compete against the emerging and mature economies around the world. To provide a diversity of views, leaders from government, academia, think tanks and the private sector were invited to look at the various opportunities and challenges facing Canada’s future work force.
One of the conference highlights was a luncheon speech by the outgoing CEO of Microsoft, Bill Gates. He emphasized that the uncertainty created by globalization and the emergence of India and China as technological powerhouses has had the effect of unleashing unprecedented levels of creativity and innovation to the benefit of all citizens of the world. At the same time it has unsettled the traditional ways of doing commerce.
To help frame the discussion, 150 invitees from diverse corporate and governmental sectors participated in the deliberations by providing a challenge function to the views being expressed by the presenters.
One of the surprising outcomes was the general consensus on the factors that challenge Canada’s ability to be among the most innovative and competitive nations in the world.
The first area of agreement was that Canada will be continually buffeted by the effects of globalization for many years to come and there is no way that any nation can inoculate itself from its effect.
Second, while Canada may have many of the necessary characteristics to compete in the global economy, our competitiveness and productivity numbers are problematic and represent discouraging trend lines. For example, the Conference Board reports that Canada has seen its productivity numbers fall in recent years when compared to its major trading partners. As well, “declining or comparatively slower growth in per capita income, exports of value-added goods and services, and innovation are indicators of our diminishing capacity to achieve sustainable prosperity in the increasingly integrated global economy.”
Third, with regards to the current composition of our labour market, there is a looming shortage of workers due to the aging work force. We are only a few years away from significant shortages in the construction, IT and other skilled trades. As a result, there is an immediate need for a more highly skilled work force that wants to move into higher wage (and more technical) jobs.
Fourth, there will not be enough young Canadians to take on the increased demand for the new skill requirements. At this juncture, immigration represents the best opportunity for Canada to fill these vacancies and all speakers urged immediate action, since the needs are real today and will be more acute in a few years.
The remedies offered by the speakers and participants touched on a number of public policy areas. First, most speakers, but especially Gwyn Morgan, former CEO of Encana, made a plea for a broader-based immigration policy that is better targeted and more welcoming than our current one. He also raised the related challenge of finding an effective and efficient way to recognize immigrants’ prior learning (and their earned qualifications) once they arrive in Canada and are ready to move into the workforce.
Another round of interventions concentrated on the importance of innovation clusters. For example, University of Waterloo president, David Johnston, reminded the audience that clusters anchored around universities and research facilities continue to be crucial in establishing Canada as an important centre for research (but not necessarily for commercialization of their innovations). This means establishing better relations between universities and the private sector by “spawning startup companies that are incubators of the technology of the future.”
Speakers also noted that there are too many under-represented groups in the high-skills work force, particularly aboriginals. And the relatively low high school completion rates in Canada, compared with other high skilled economies, are an ongoing challenge and a “drag” on our ability to innovate. Moreover, compared with high-growth economies such as China and India, Canada graduates too few students in science and engineering. These data are important because these two disciplines tend to foster the most innovation in research and development. It was also noted in addition to having the right skills set, young people must learn “to be adaptable and to handle change.”
As at previous CanWin conferences, participants noted that there are too many barriers to labour mobility in Canada, especially inter-provincial movement in search for good jobs.
And compared to other high-skilled economies, Canada has under-invested in job training. Elyse Allen, CEO of General Electric Canada, observed that companies are key players. In her view, corporations, both large and small, can do much more by appreciating that “workers do not come for free.” She also noted that OECD studies demonstrate only 29% of Canadian companies invest in employee education and training compared with 44% in the US and 46% in Denmark.
Finally, many participants expressed their frustration with Canada’s lack of urgency in responding to the growing crisis in this important arena. The technological changes taking place today are not the same as the changes that took place five years ago. The pace of change is unrelenting and its impact on our workforce is more profound and transformative than previously. Moreover, concerns were expressed about the workforce and the implications for labour are similar to those that have been debated in Canada since the publication of the federal government’s innovation strategy almost 10 years ago. In particular, the underinvestment by the private sector in re-skilling and on-the-job training drew the most critical comments from participants.
Many emphasized that Canada is well positioned to benefit from the increasing levels of trade among nations since it has good educational institutions, is close to major markets, and uses technology effectively in many competitive sectors of the economy. In other words, it has most of the components to become an innovative nation.
However, there remain many outstanding issues to be resolved before Canada can effectively compete on the world stage. As a result, the conference ended with a call for commitment and action from Canada’s corporate sector to become more engaged in attending to the challenges of their workforce. As well, many felt the federal government has not been providing the leadership that is needed improve Canada’s commercialization regime, its approach to skilled immigrants, and its overall economic framework. One participant even suggested that the government look at the viability of developing a “Smart Nation Act” that would mirror our highly valued Canada Health Act. This kind of bold thinking might make the annual CanWin conference a driving force for change in Canada.
David Zussman holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management in the Faculty of Social Sciences and School of Management at t