If there’s one thing Nortel did right during her tenure there, it was to hire engineers and scientists into non-traditional roles, said Gerlinde Herrmann.
“It didn’t matter. They’d plunk them into finance, into HR, any field. They just wanted the learning discipline. Eventually they would find their ground,” said Herrmann, now president of the Toronto-based consulting firm The Herrmann Group. She said the benefit of hiring those graduates was enormous.
“Sciences, in general, focus on the research. How do things work? Why do things work? Can they work differently? Are there other alternatives?” she said. “The whole discipline of a science background — whether it’s physics or engineering or whatever — focuses on that.”
A new study by Statistics Canada,
Cities and Growth: The Left Brain of North American Cities: Scientists and Engineers and Urban Growth
, looked at 242 Canadian and American cities to determine the relationship between human capital and urban growth. It suggests that not only do these professionals lead to innovation within an organization, but engineers and scientists are, overall, catalysts for employment growth in a community.
The study looked at the link between the prevalence of university graduates in a city and long-term job growth.
Research confirmed a widely held belief that employment thrives in communities where there is a broad pool of university degree holders. It also revealed something else: When a greater share of these grads are scientists and engineers — people directly involved in developing and implementing innovations — job growth increases even further. Herrmann said she is not surprised.
“There are countries like Germany and China that focus heavily on sciences and engineering because they believe that is going to be their growth in the future,” she said. “And both of those economies are very successful.”
The results of the study are not a revelation, as engineers have always been society’s innovators, said Marie Carter, acting chief executive officer of Engineers Canada.
“Engineers develop solutions to issues facing their communities. But it is in collaboration with others that these solutions are implemented,” she said. “This collaboration fuels job creation as engineers also lead technical teams that may include scientists, technologists and drafts people.”
She said engineers and scientists “are integral to the business machine as innovation is what allows businesses to distinguish themselves from the competitors, for example, through lower costs and increased efficiencies.”
Engineering and science graduates distinguish themselves from other degree holders, as they have been taught to look and think ahead of what is known today, she said. However, both she and Herrmann warn Canada will have to do more to encourage students to move into these fields to remain competitive.
Right now, scientists and engineers account for just 4.5 per cent of paid employment in Canada and the United States.
“We’re lagging, but so is the U.S., the United Kingdom — even China,” said Herrmann, who sits on the global panel of the Society for Human Resource Management. “Even they feel they don’t have enough kids in sciences, so it’s kind of ironic that they feel they need more.”
Calgary has one of the highest numbers of engineers per capita in Canada, but the province’s two largest engineering schools, in Calgary and Edmonton, can’t turn out enough graduates to keep pace with demand, said Elizabeth Cannon, chair of the Schulich School of Engineering at the University of Calgary.
“Engineers are commonly the engines within companies in terms of driving innovation,” she said. “If you see the acceleration of the use of technology, the expectation of the development of new technology, the adoption of new technologies by companies, there is a stronger and stronger need to have people who have skill sets that can contribute on a very creative level, but have the solid technical grounding that engineers have to drive that.”
Unfortunately, Cannon said engineering schools “can’t just double class sizes overnight.” She is heartened, however, by reports such as the one by Statistics Canada, which proves what engineers have believed all along: They bring value and prosperity to a community.
“The study is very timely,” she said. “We’re now seeing a very strong attraction of students in high school to the profession. They see the value in the community and the prestige of the degree.”
In Saskatchewan, in the early stages of its own oil and gas boom, there’s clear evidence of what happens when engineers and scientists are concentrated in one geographic area.
Innovation Place is a research park, tied to the University of Saskatchewan, home to 144 clients that contributes more than $561 million annually to the provincial economy.
Business is so robust at a lot of these firms that many of the university’s engineering, science — and other undergraduates — are moving straight into jobs there.
“You’ve got Innovation Place, with these small firms — the small science, high-tech and engineering firms — and so they need the HR capacity, they need the marketing consultants, the sales consultants so that attracts other educated professionals. They need it all,” said Rosemary Venne, an industrial relations professor at the university in Saskatoon.
The Statistics Canada study does, however, suggest a mix in university-educated workers matters. While scientists and engineers are often seen as the catalysts of employment growth in cities, this holds true mainly in cities where there is a larger and diverse pool of university-educated people.
There was less evidence that degree holders working in culture occupations, on their own or through interactions with other types of degree holders, had a particularly strong impact on growth.
Danielle Harder is a Whitby, Ont.-based freelance writer.
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