Competing in the 21st Century Skills Race, by Graham Orpwood, Bonnie Schmidt, and Hu Jun
Competition from low-wage countries has long been a challenge for many Canadian manufacturers. But the global economy is evolving and growing numbers of previously undeveloped economies are now moving up the value chain. As China and other Asian countries invest heavily in education and skills development, it is time to assess how well our country is positioned to compete in the emerging global skills race.
This paper compares Canadian and Chinese achievements in three broad areas: general literacy and numeracy; the number of students enrolled in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs; and the development of skills that are considered particularly important for innovation, such as critical and creative thinking, collaboration and adaptability. It concludes by raising questions for discussion and some modest proposals to spur discussion toward a vision and plan for talent development that would help to secure Canada’s place in the global knowledge economy.
Canada has long boasted high standards of literacy and numeracy. A high proportion of Canadians complete high school (although there are concerns about levels of achievement in areas such as mathematics). Participation in college and university education is high as well, but the proportion of students in STEM programs is weak, especially at the postgraduate level. A recent survey shows that while Canadian students understand the importance of science and technology to Canada’s future, most are not inclined to pursue careers in those fields.
By contrast, China’s growth in basic literacy and high school completion in the past 20 years has been phenomenal. Fully 50 per cent of all Chinese postsecondary students are enrolled in STEM programs. While the overall proportion of students attending postsecondary education is lower in China than in Canada, the gap is narrowing and the absolute number of Chinese STEM graduates is much greater. China, a nation rich in human resources, is rapidly becoming a nation rich in highly skilled human resources. Moreover, Chinese students are studying abroad in ever-increasing numbers. An estimated one million Chinese have studied abroad during the past 20 years, in over 100 countries. Some 60,000 are now studying in Canada, a 35 per cent increase over the past four years.
These comparisons raise uncomfortable questions for Canadians, such as:
- What are the skills that will enable Canada to compete successfully in the 21st century and what institutional arrangements will ensure that Canadians are equipped with those skills?
- How can Canada develop educational policies and plans geared to national economic priorities when our Constitution gives the provinces and territories exclusive responsibility for education?
- What will it take to convince policymakers and the public that education is an investment in our economic future and not merely a social cost?
- How will we meet the need for more scientists, engineers, technologists and skilled tradespeople when our postsecondary system is largely driven by student choice, and when insufficient numbers of students seem inclined to pursue such careers?
- In what ways can private-public partnerships, the not-for-profit sector and collaborations among formal and information organizations – schools, colleges, universities, libraries, museums and other institutions – help to improve Canadian educational outcomes?
In conclusion, we call for the creation of a National Roundtable on Skills to develop both a vision for the future and a comprehensive strategy to achieve that vision. Success will require the participation not just of governments at all levels, but of the private and not-for-profit sectors. Canada’s continued growth and prosperity depends on our nation’s ability to develop the skills and talents of its people to their maximum potential.