The Hill Times: Canada’s economy needs workers with global learning experiences

In a column published recently in The Hill Times, Perrin Beatty and Paul Davidson argued that Canada has to up its game when it comes to connecting post-secondary students with international learning experiences.

“In our rapidly changing world,” they wrote, “Canadian employers need workers who are culturally aware, resilient, and adaptable—skilled in problem solving, communication, and teamwork. These are all competencies gained through international experiences.”

At Mitacs, we couldn’t agree more and would press the case for this kind of exchange several steps further.

Most Canadians who have studied abroad will tell you that the benefits extend far beyond their formal learning, having provided them with exceptional opportunities to enrich their personal and professional networks as well as their understanding of the globalized economy.

The windfalls from global learning, in other words, are potentially even richer and more textured than we may imagine, and our policy objectives should reflect the opportunities to be had here.

Over the last decade and a half, we have seen clear evidence of the benefits of providing a bridge between leading academic institutions and the business world. Our programs provide distinctly reciprocal benefits: the students gain valuable first-hand experience at tackling real-life industrial challenges, both in Canada and abroad, while the partner organizations, including many startups, apply insights and expertise that these young people bring towards finding innovative solutions and approaches to their needs.

Mitacs’s international programs, in fact, provide opportunities for Canadian students to participate in overseas internships with private-sector firms. They gain those experiences working in foreign divisions of Canadian multinationals, like Teck Resources. Over the past year, Mitacs interns have also benefited from working abroad for foreign companies, like SNCF or Eurovia, both in France, and they return with meaningful experience, knowledge, and cultural fluency.

The opportunities exist beyond the for-profit world, as well. For example, Camille Warbington, a PhD candidate in ecology at the University of Alberta, worked recently in Uganda, gathering data on wetland sub-Saharan species that will inform the country’s wildlife authority in developing sustainability management plans.

We are keenly aware of the fact that there’s an appetite among international firms for Canadian talent in many different fields. Mitacs recently started working with Inverted AI, a company that was formed to relocate a business from the United Kingdom, to set up and expand its team in Vancouver to take advantage of the booming city. More generally, such opportunities provide Canadian students who can’t go abroad with exposure to the cultures, competencies, and business strategies used by international firms.

While there’s a great deal of diversity in these kinds of pairings, the common denominator comes back to a key point that Beatty and Davidson raised in their column, which is the importance of global educational experiences. It’s certainly true that some university students will find a way to access study-abroad programs that satisfy a personal interest or passion, but that may not be directly tied to a research experience or a career goal. Through international internships, we can broaden the pool of participants to include those who want their university degrees to focus primarily on very tangible, degree-related activities and work-related opportunities. And for graduate students, this type of experience can play a key role in the transition from academic life into the workforce.

While the benefits of these opportunities can be transformational for students, there’s also an increasing sense of urgency for Canada to take action. Diversification is key to Canada’s prosperity. As the country seeks to develop trade relationships beyond our traditional partners, it’s clear that technology- and innovation-driven sectors will drive productivity and produce the wealth-creating jobs of the 21st century. The firms generating these new forms of economic activity are, by their very nature, global in both outlook and profile; they seek talent wherever they can find it. That’s why it’s so crucial to nurture a generation of young people with wide perspectives.

Even more specifically, the growing volume of global internships will invariably buttress Canada’s innovation ecosystem, which now stretches from university campuses to incubators, accelerators, startups, venture funds, corporate research and development teams and, as of last year, the superclusters established by the federal government.

None of these organizations and institutions function in anything but an international environment. Scientific inquiry, technology transfer, patent development—all of these activities have scant regard for borders. So it only makes sense that the young people who set out to pursue such vocations are equipped with a keen and experiential understanding of the interconnectedness of a globalized economy.

In 2017, as Beatty and Davidson note, the Study Group on Global Education released a report, which Mitacs helped inform, calling on Canadian policy-makers to develop a coherent strategy for significantly expanding the resources required to provide international educational experiences to more university students, as is now done in many OECD nations.

We wholeheartedly agree with the call to action and urge federal policy-makers to make explicit the crucial link between the report’s worthy objectives and Canada’s evolving innovation and trade strategies. In so doing, we will be providing invaluable learning experiences to a generation of young people who will function as global citizens in a country whose future depends so directly on innovation.

Alejandro Adem is CEO and scientific director of Mitacs, a not-for-profit organization that works with universities, companies, and both federal and provincial governments to design and deliver research and training programs to support industrial and social innovation in Canada. He is also a professor of mathematics at the University of British Columbia.

Source: The Hill Times