This op-ed was initially published in the Huffington Post on March 15, 2017.
When they came to power in 2015, the Liberals promised a government committed to broad consultation; and on this, no one can argue they haven’t delivered. As I write these words, there are no fewer than 58 open national consultations. By all accounts, 2017 will see the release of a huge number of consultation summaries, expert panel reviews, and advisory council reports, largely focused on how to sustain long-term economic growth, strengthen communities and create jobs and opportunities for Canadians. All of which speak directly to the mission of Canada’s colleges and institutes.
Skills and innovation – core elements of the college/institute mandate – have emerged as absolutely fundamental to the government’s agenda. They have been the focus of several consultations and more than a few reports, including a recent series of recommendations by the finance minister’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth.
The recommendations emerging from this extensive round of consultations resonate strongly with Canada’s colleges, polytechnics, cegeps, and institutes. When it comes to skills and innovation, they have been leading the way for years: providing Canadians with the skills they need to succeed in a changing economy has always been their first priority. They are the most accessible post-secondary institutions in the country, reaching over 1.5 million learners in more that 3000 communities. They welcome students from all social backgrounds and origins, including under-represented and vulnerable groups such as new immigrants, Indigenous peoples and underemployed adults, with tailored programming and the support services required to ensure their success.
Many colleges and institutes have pioneered programs widely recognized as best practices on inclusion, especially when it comes to essential skills training and upskilling opportunities. This has included working with Indigenous peoples to expand training options and employment outcomes in northern communities, as well as innovative programs such as Canadore College’s successful Aboriginal Women in Trades program, that promote women entering the labour market in non-traditional sectors. When Dominic Barton’s Advisory Council writes about the need to improve worker resilience and get underrepresented groups to work, this is the kind of thing they are referencing, whether they realize it or not.
Colleges and institutes are champions of reskilling, a term strongly associated with the labour market impacts of disruptive technologies and the skills demands of the future economy. By working with local employers and experts to create new programs that respond to the evolving labour market, colleges and institutes help adult learners update their skills or transition to new careers and ensure graduates will be resilient to change. Take for example, Vancouver Community College’s brand new Samsung Tech Institute, which offers students in the repair technician program classes focused on the electronic components of next-generation, internet-enabled appliances.
The Advisory Council on Economic Growth issued several recommendations to help prepare Canadians for the workforce of the future, including the creation of a new national structure they call the FutureSkills Lab, dedicated to supporting innovative approaches to skills development. Though the devil will be in the details, the approach is promising given the monumental labour-market shifts that are already occurring. With their training expertise and responsive mindset, colleges and institutes will be invaluable partners in developing innovative new approaches.
The other challenge for the Canadian economy is the need to unlock innovation in the context of increasing global competition. Here again, we have seen lots of consultation and interesting recommendations in a space where colleges and institutes occupy a key position, owning the applied research niche with a proven approach to partnered innovation. In 2014-15 alone, they worked with over 5 500 private companies, 86% of which were small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
SMEs have a hugely important role to play in the Canadian innovation ecosystem – they represent over 97% of all Canadian businesses, and are often where new solutions and entrepreneurial ideas take root. The challenge is the availability of the talent and technical resources to build on their ideas. Colleges and institutes help fill that gap by providing access to facilities, the expertise of experienced researchers, and the fresh perspective of motivated students, keen to become future leaders.
By integrating innovation and entrepreneurship in all aspects of their curriculums, colleges and institutes are also contributing to the rise of a new generation of innovators, like Alex Villeneuve. The second year brewmaster student at Alberta’s Olds College had the brilliant idea of reusing waste barley, discarded as by-product in the brewing process, to grow high-quality mushrooms– which he now sells to local restaurants – and increasing the protein content of the spent barley that can then be recycled a second time as cattle feed. With the support of his college, this young man has created his own business, which he is now looking to expand while finishing his degree.
This is precisely the kind of practical innovation that helps tackle today’s challenges, including those linked to climate change and greening multiple industries. It shows that with the right skills and education, and with a little encouragement, we can easily fan the flame of innovation. This is exactly how we build a resilient workforce and an inclusive economy: through education that empowers all Canadians to reach their full potential.
President and CEO, Colleges and Institutes Canada