Canada risks falling behind in the global skills race, report warns

Canada is in danger of losing ground in the global economy unless educators and governments convince more young people to pursue science-related careers, a new report suggests.

The report, “Competing in the 21st century skills race”, says that Canada faces a growing shortage of workers with university degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, in large part because relatively few Canadian high school graduates choose to enrol in such programs.

The report cites a 2010 survey of Canadians aged 16 to 18, only 37 per cent of whom expressed an interest in taking even one science course at the post-secondary level.

“Our research indicates that Canadian students recognize the need for more people to study science, but that a majority of them are not themselves attracted to such programs or careers,” the authors say. 

The report’s authors are Graham Orpwood, professor emeritus of education at York University in Toronto, Bonnie Schmidt, president and founder of Let’s Talk Science, a national not-for-profit organization, and Hu Jun, associate professor at the China National Institute for Educational Sciences in Beijing.

The authors acknowledge that Canada’s education system has many strengths. Literacy and numeracy rates are relatively high by international standards, and enrolment in university and college programs is also high.

Canada performs poorly, however, in international comparisons of student participation in university-level science, engineering and math programs. And Canada is near the bottom of the pack among industrialized countries when it comes to the overall number of PhD graduates per 100,000 people.     

The report notes that India, China and other fast-growing Asian economies are putting a special emphasis on educating large numbers of highly qualified graduates in science-related fields, in particular engineering.  In China, for example, more than one in three newly granted university degrees are in engineering disciplines. In Canada, the comparable rate is only one in 10.

“As we consider how best to strengthen Canada’s educational system, it is essential that we pay close attention to what other countries are doing to address their own needs for highly skilled labour,” the report says.

Today’s paper is the sixth in a series of reports commissioned by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE) to explore the impact on Canada of Asia’s rapid economic development. The views expressed in the paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the CCCE or its members.

The CCCE is the senior voice of Canada’s business community, representing 150 chief executives and leading entrepreneurs in all sectors and regions of the country. Its members lead companies that collectively administer $4.5 trillion in assets, employ more than 1.4 million men and women and are responsible for most of Canada’s private-sector exports, investment and training.

In September, the CCCE will host “Canada in the Pacific Century,” a conference bringing together more than 200 top CEOs, senior government officials, educators and other leaders from across Canadian society. The goal of the conference is to consider strategies that will ensure Canada’s success in a world in which economic power is shifting to Asia.

For more information about the conference and the publication series, visit www.PacificCentury.ca.