Globe and Mail: Why youth skills development must go national now

Our biggest trading relationship is under a cloud. Our economic competitiveness is being questioned. Even our ability to ship resources to the world is being challenged anew.

Small wonder Canadians feel anxious about their economic well-being, even as our economy shows growth.

In the face of such volatility, it’s time to focus on something we can control: helping Canadians prepare for the skills economy of tomorrow. No matter how the world turns, Canada’s economic prosperity in the decade ahead rests on the brain power of our youth and their readiness for a future of work that will be different from anything we’ve known.

There are nearly seven million Canadians aged 15 to 29 who will take on our most critical social and economic challenges in the 2020s. And while they’re joining a strong economy – with jobs growing as the baby boomers retire – there’s no certainty about the exact mix of skills they’ll need to thrive in a future where automation and technology is affecting every workplace.

As co-chairs of the Business/Higher Education Roundtable, we have each seen that a critical way to foster these skills is to connect workplaces and campuses through work-integrated programs such as co-ops, internships and apprenticeships. Canada has always been good at this. Now we have to be great.

That’s why BHER has brought together more than two dozen groups – representing Canadian businesses and postsecondary institutions of all sizes – to call for a national work-integrated learning strategy and a commitment to ensure that every postsecondary student in Canada has the opportunity to complete meaningful work experience by the time they graduate.

Work-integrated learning can truly be a social and economic leveller. It’s also an opportunity that roughly 40 per cent of Canadian students miss out on.

The federal government has started to change that, with investments in programs such as Mitacs, the Youth Employment Strategy and the new Student Work Placement Program. Our group is urging Ottawa and the provinces to continue down this path, to make Canada a world leader in experiential learning within the next decade.

Here’s what we can do today.

As part of a national work-integrated learning strategy, the federal and provincial governments can make it easier for businesses to participate in student programs and share their experiences and insights with educators. Some smaller employers and not-for-profit organizations may need financial and administrative support to bring students aboard. They’ll also need a made-in-Canada technology platform to connect students with placement opportunities.

But at a time when talent is a deciding factor in the global economy, every employer will need new approaches to workplace learning to build on our strong foundation. It’s not just recruitment and retention that are at stake. Organizations in every sector need to tap into the innovative ideas and ambitions of our next generation – the youth who see the world as it should be, and can secure Canada’s place in it.

Work-integrated learning opportunities for humanities and social science students should be expanded. More support for those from underrepresented groups should also be offered. And we’ll need to ensure that the value of these work placements is measured, just like any other part of an academic program.

As we gain traction, we can take advantage of the new federal superclusters initiative, putting skills and youth at the centre of Canada’s big bets on agriculture, oceans, data, artificial intelligence and advanced manufacturing. The provinces can also raise the bar for experiential learning in their own education and economic development programs.

To be clear, however, this is not a job just for government.

We must encourage employers and educators to see work-integrated learning as an investment in their success. Given that 70 per cent of employers surveyed by the Business Council of Canada say they expect more from new grads than just five years ago, both groups must collaborate to ensure this new model of learning is built into business strategies as well as course curricula.

But we don’t have much time. Ottawa and the provinces have a rare chance to come together to help Canadian employers, educators and youth prepare for the 2020s, using work-integrated learning to develop the skills and aptitudes we’ll all need for a turbulent tomorrow.

What we do over the next few years can help make Canada a world leader in work-integrated learning and give us an education system that’s not just fit for the future – but also for the ambitions of our country.


Elizabeth Cannon is president and vice-chancellor of the University of Calgary.

Dave McKay is president and chief executive officer of Royal Bank of Canada.

Anne Sado is president of George Brown College.