This Thursday, the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE) CEO, John Manley, is speaking at the Canadian Club in Toronto on the subject of “Strengthening Canada’s Human Capital Advantage”. Now, you may roll your eyes at this and think, “oh God, not another welders vs. BAs talk”. But it’s possible that this is going to be a useful, serious event. Although “everybody knows” that the business community believes there’s a critical skills gap, I don’t think business as yet has actually spoken very much on the subject.
Oh sure, there’s no shortage of people making a case on behalf of business: Jason Kenney, CIBC’s Benjamin Tal, the Conference Board’s Michael Bloom – all of whom, in one way or another, are saying, “more welders, fewer BAs”. But none of these are actual business people. We used to have something in Canada called the Corporate Higher Education Forum (CHEF), which served an interlocutor function on education policy, but it died of apathy almost 15 years ago. Nowadays, you’re a lot more likely to hear policy entrepreneurs like Bloom talking than you are actual business leaders. And that’s less helpful.
I have no doubt that resource-extraction industries in Western Canada are in dire need of people with a few very specific technical skills, like welding. But they’re a tiny fraction of business in this country – 2 or 3 per cent at most. What about small business? What about manufacturing and services? Heck, what about government itself? What skills do they all want, and in what quantities? We have no idea.
We have a pretty good system in Canada for getting employer feedback to individual college and university programs, but no way of co-ordinating that feedback at a provincial or national level so that governments can understand the aggregate needs of the economy as a whole. At the moment it seems to be that the squeakiest wheel gets the grease, which is a terrible way to develop policy. So, the fact that CCCE is getting involved in the skills field is almost certainly a good thing, because its members’ human resource needs are broader than the trades, and thus they’re likelier to provide a more balanced picture.
My guess is that if you ask business leaders the right question, they’ll say that the issue isn’t the number of skilled tradespeople, but about skills levels right across the board of all new graduates. Such an answer, if it is ever forthcoming, would move the conversation from one of welders vs. BAs to one of learning outcomes in every post-secondary program. In some ways, it is a more difficult debate. But it’s far preferable to the infantile discussion we’re having now.