Is Canada’s prosperity at risk?

Three SCNetwork members discuss Ilse Treurnicht’s presentation


Paul Pittman: What a great way to start the year with an insightful macro presentation on Canada’s readiness to meet the coming changes in the workplace and how we stack up against the rest of the world. It is reassuring to know Canada compares well.

There were few surprises in the projections of the types of changes we should be expecting regarding work, such as multiple careers, more soft skills and more technological skills, but what was surprising were the insights of how we as a country are preparing ourselves.

Understated was the territorial wrangling between provincial and federal policy makers. These need resolution and synchronization, and employers need to voice their concerns and preparedness for partnership with government. Canada’s prosperity is at risk and the status quo is not an option.

The two major learning streams — primary education and unemployment re-training — appear well-established but Ilse Treurnicht argued for a national approach that extended beyond the parochial needs of employers aimed at reskilling workers who were already in employment.

This would be go beyond the narrow needs of employers but require government stimulus, in excess of the funding for Canada’s Lifelong Learning Plan, and ultimately equal the commitment to the other major learning streams. She referenced programs in Quebec, France and Singapore as examples.

Our larger geography and multi-sector exposure make a coordinated strategy an imperative and to avoid what is becoming evident in other programs — the direction of training budgets to a relatively small portion of the population.

For example, 70 per cent of a typical employer training budget is spent on senior employees.

More data on emerging skills needs was needed to direct training; a potential role for the FutureSkills Lab possibly? Ten to 12 per cent of Canada’s workforce undertakes post-secondary education and it’s estimated this needs to increase by 30 per cent to reach globally competitive levels.

Treurnicht went on to describe the work underway at AT&T which in 2003 determined that 30 per cent of employees’ skills would cease to exist by 2020. It commenced a program jointly funded with Georgia Tech with a budget of $250 million per annum which is now responsible for filling 40 per cent of AT&T’s newly created roles with retrained existing employees.

The alarming conclusion was that ignoring the long-term consequences and failing to be prepared with the required new skills would cause disruption and dislocation that would seriously affect the quality of life for Canadians.

Jan van der Hoop: This brief reminds me of some research I did a number of years back for a presentation I was asked to give to a group of CFOs. The call to action, if you will, was Canada’s flagging productivity. While that of the United States had risen slowly but steadily over the years, ours had flagged.

At the time, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) pegged us at the same productivity level as Greece, well below most of our peers in the G20. That was a wake-up call to the executives in the room.

The OECD calculated that if our productivity had instead followed the slow upward path of our neighbour, the “average” Canadian’s annual take-home pay would have been more than $10,000 higher.

Those statistics make a fairly esoteric concept far more tangible.

It is a macro problem with no easy solutions. Hesitation to invest in meaningful research and development is part of the issue. As is the continued hollowing out of corporate Canada with large employers having become foreign-owned branch offices and mid-sized companies disappearing from the landscape.

Yet the biggest issue I feel is the fundamental (and growing) mismatch between the talent and skills we are producing, and what the market wants to hire.

Yes, we need more people through STEM to fill high-tech jobs, no question. But we also need to stop steering kids away from the trades and other “vocational” jobs that do not require a university degree.

There’s already an oversupply in that quarter — too many baristas with PhDs.

My call to action with the CFOs certainly raised eyebrows and got tongues clicking, but the issue (and the opportunity) is too broad and complex for any one individual, company or association to address.

Can the government do better?

Silvia Lulka: I agree, Paul, thought-provoking on so many levels.  Jan, I agree too, on the link to education. 

I left the session with an overarching question of how do we really tackle this, or at least start to make a meaningful dent. How do we start to get traction on a challenge of such magnitude?  How can we understand what skills we’ll need? How can we help people to continuously be prepared to learn new skills?

The piece that was missing for me was the demographic forecasts. In 2038, what skills will 20- and 30-somethings have? We can’t assume it will be the same as today’s 20- to 30-year-olds. The same goes for every age category — today’s octogenarians are far more tech-savvy than octogenarians in 1998. 

There’s nothing easy about this, and it is of paramount importance. There has to be strong partnership between governments, employers of all sizes and educational institutions at various levels. Treurnicht gave us some great examples of what other countries are doing.

I think the question is: Who spearheads this? And then, from there, who needs to be engaged?


Paul Pittman, founder and president of the Human Well in Toronto
Jan G. van der Hoop, president of Fit First Technologies in Toronto
Silvia Lulka, director of coaching at Rogers Communications in Toronto



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