Over the past few weeks, I’ve been critical of cheap talk about “skills gaps”. That doesn’t mean that I think business complaints about human resources are baseless; the calls of dissatisfaction are too loud and broad for that to be the case.
Business in many sectors has said loud and clear that it can’t get the workers it needs. The problem, I think, is that policymakers have concluded that the problem lies in the quantity of graduates in particular fields. But what if the real problem is one of quality rather than quantity? What if the shortage is not of skills or of labour, but of talent?
Canadians don’t spend much time thinking about how to develop or attract real leaders and innovators. In the War for Talent, Canada is basically a conscientious objector. Part of the problem (in higher education at least) is that focusing on talent is somehow seen as antithetical to promoting access (something Canadians rightly value). But that’s a false dichotomy: success in promoting access shouldn’t be an excuse for failing to identify and nurture top talent.
And fail we do, right across the board. Our high school guidance system can do “tick-the-box academic advising” but can’t link students to horizon-broadening leadership opportunities in their own community. Post-secondary scholarships are used as cheap enrollment management tools rather than as a means to identify and develop top talent. The usual defense of our inaction is that talented young people take care of developing their talents on their own and that public policy should focus on the less fortunate. But that’s only true if one takes the massively condescending view that “talent” is equivalent to “stuff children of the professional class do”. Assuming we want a broader definition of talent and achievement, and that leadership is something that is necessary in all occupations and walks of life, then its development is something we actually need to pay for.
Though I could go on at length – how about an immigration policy which actually goes out and actively lures talented people in specific fields rather than complacently wait for them to show up? I’ll spare you. But just imagine for a moment: a policy agenda which engages educators and businesses across the board in thinking about how we structure opportunities for youth, how we given them the tools to develop their own talents to the fullest, and how we engage everyone in becoming leaders and innovators in the economy and in society. Now compare it with the juvenile “my-occupation’s-skill-set-is-more-important-than-yours” crap we’ve been dealing with for the last few months. Which is likelier to lead to a Canada we can be proud of?