My friend and colleague, Jamie Merisotis of the Lumina Foundation in the United States, recently wrote a book called America Needs Talent. It’s a short, popularly-oriented account of how human capital drives the economy, and what countries and cities can do to acquire it. One of the suggestions he makes is for a federal “Department of Talent”, which is intriguing as a thought experiment, if nothing else. So let’s explore that idea for a moment.
To begin, let’s be clear about what Merisotis means by “talent”. He’s painting with a very broad brush here. Yes, he means “top talent” in the sense of highly qualified scientists, entrepreneurs, etc., but he’s also talking about the talents one acquires through post-secondary education: everything from car repair to microbiology. So when he says “Department of Talent”, what he’s really talking about is a “Department of Skills”, just with a much less vocational sheen.
Most of Merisotis’ argument could be transported to Canada (albeit in somewhat muted form, given the differing nature of the two countries’ federal responsibilities). The primary goal of any government is (or should be) to raise levels of productivity. No increase in productivity, no increase in standard of living (or standard of public services). So there’s always a need to come up with better ways to think through how a country can raise its overall skills profile.
Yet at the federal level, we split up that responsibility among four ministries (warning: I have not yet bothered to learn the snappy new names the Trudeau government has bestowed upon departments). In Canada, we have an Industry/Science Ministry, which plays a huge role in developing scientific careers, and fostering skills/knowledge through science-business relationships. We have a Human Resources Ministry (now on its sixth name in twelve years), which supports training and learning in a variety of guises. We have an Immigration Ministry in charge of bringing people into the country, which sort of co-ordinates with Human Resources in working out labour market needs, but not necessarily in ways that maximizes skill acquisition. And finally, we have a Foreign Ministry, which is increasingly interested in attracting foreign students, and that has knock-on effects for immigration down the road.
And so, genuine question: why not hive-off the bits of all of those ministries that focus on talent development and acquisition, and stick them into a single ministry? Why not create an organization with a singular focus of making our talent pool across all industries better? It’s not impossible; in fact, Saskatchewan already tried it for several years with a ministry of Advanced Education, Employment and Immigration (an experiment recently unwound for reasons that remain obscure).
I think the quick and simple answer here is that changing bureaucratic chairs is not the same as changing actual policy orientation, and still less about changing results. In reality, you might create a lot of churn, with very few actual results. Still, the thought experiment is a useful one: who is in charge of ensuring that Canada always has the best talent at its disposal, in every field of endeavour? Who makes sure that our education and immigration policies are complimentary? Given the nature of our federation, this is always going to be a distributed function, but it seems to me that we don’t actually pose questions this way. We talk about programs (how can we improve student loans?) or institutions (how can we increase the number of community college seats?), but only rarely do we talk about what the final talent pool will look like.
So, while a Ministry of Talent might make not make a lot of sense, there’s still much to be gained by talking about ends rather than means. A “Talent Agenda”, maybe? Something to think about, anyway.