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Understanding Canada’s Skills Gap

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

by John Kershaw, Learning 2030 Advisor

(Image © Auburn Alumni Association)

Canada has one of the best public education systems in the world. Why, then, do we have a skills gap issue in this country?  And what is the relevance for WGSI's upcoming Learning 2030 Summit?

In its most recent budget, Canada's federal government targeted the skills gap. It is also a growing concern for organizations such as the Canadian Chambers of Commerce and the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. 

Canadians’ ability to address the issue will determine our place in the global marketplace and our role in resolving some of the social and environmental challenges facing our planet.

Despite its growing public profile, few fully understand the nature and scope of the issue. 

As Learning 2030 gets ready to convene a global group of young learners and future leaders, here are some thoughts to provoke their thinking. 

There appear to be four interrelated elements contributing to Canada's skills gap:

1. Canada's aging population means fewer people available for the workforce, creating a gap in available talent for employers

Exacerbating this issue is the relatively low literacy levels of some Canadians, which limits their ability to upgrade their skills to stay current with changing work requirements. 

Improving Canada's literacy rates, enhancing adult training programs, and aligning immigration policies with current and emerging workforce requirements are often cited as potential solutions. 

2. There is a shortage of youth pursuing the trades

The shortage partially results from many parents and educators encouraging youth to pursue academic streams of learning (i.e. courses designed for university preparation) in high school. 

As a consequence, over time interest in trades lessened and many schools reduced or eliminated trades-related courses. 

At the same time, baby boomers filled the trade professions, offering only limited opportunities for newcomers. 

Apprenticeship options have also declined. Today, there are fewer highly trained individuals entering the workforce which combined with growing numbers of retiring baby boomers create a gap between the supply of skilled workers and workforce requirements.

The fact that trades offer very positive and stable sources of income help shatter the myth that the academic stream is the preferred path to good career for all youth. High quality trades courses in public education and improved apprenticeship training programs in the workforce must be priorities.

(Image © RDECON)

3. Not enough Canadians are pursuing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) related courses 

Given that most of society’s technology innovations originate in these fields means that increasing the number of STEM students is a prerequisite to Canada's future competitive position. 

For example, the application of quantum physics to computers is poised to radically escalate the ability to create and use knowledge to foster economic prosperity and social progress.

Teaching more exciting relevant STEM related courses, and making youth aware of career options in these fields, are essential to building Canada’s capacity in STEM-related fields.

4. Public education is not teaching 21st century competencies, also known as “higher order thinking skills”

Today’s knowledge and digital era is rapidly transforming economies and societies, and the rate of change is predicted to escalate.  

In an era where innovation is key to both economic competitiveness and social progress, highly creative and skilled people are now the primary economic and social drivers. 

The 21st century skills race is global in nature and Canadian youth will increasingly compete for new business and employment opportunities with their peers from China, India, Brazil and other emerging economies. 

Playing on the international stage

The OECD, European Union and other global think tanks and researchers have identified a suite of "21st century competencies" required for success in today's innovation-driven world. 

They include creative, innovative, critical and entrepreneurial thinking as well as the ability to collaborate and communicate effectively, often in a virtual and global context. 

Unfortunately, most countries – including Canada – have been slow to transform their public education systems to focus on these competencies. 

As a result, a gap is emerging between the competencies now required and those nurtured in public education.

So what does this all mean? 

Canadians are right to be proud of our public education systems. But, that doesn’t mean we can afford to be complacent. 

What we teach, how we teach and how we assess learning, must change. 

Quite simply, Canada's approach to learning must be transformed to meet the economic and social realities of the 21st century.

John Kershaw is the former Deputy Minister of Education for the province of New Brunswick. Since his time in office, he has continued to consult and advocate for 21st century models of learning in Canada's public education system as the CEO of 21st Century Learning Associates.