Oh, Canada! Does the skills gap threaten thee?

Open your favorite search engine. Type in these words “Canada Skills Gap” and prepare for tens of millions of returns. Links with headlines like “IT Skills Gap Hurts Productivity Canadian Executives Say”, “Ontario’s Skills Gap Is Costing the Province Billions” or “Skills Shortages Number One Concern for Businesses Says Canadian Chamber of Commerce”.

And the list of link headlines could easily fill this entire column but I think you get the point: there is a skills gap in Canada.  And nearly every other developed, and developing, country in the world. A gap that directly threatens the future strength of the Canadian dollar, the employability of Canadians around the world and the national security of Canada as future conflicts will most like be fought with bits rather than bombs.

So why am I, a provincial American who lives outside Boston, Massachusetts, sharing my thoughts about the skills gap in Canada with you? What’s my “street cred” so to speak?

In February 2007, while attending a workforce development conference in Cincinnati, Ohio, I was on deadline for a column I wrote at the time in CIO Magazine. Several of the speakers at the conference addressed this new issue of a skills gap talent shortage. A shortage, they claimed, that would widen dramatically in the years ahead if nothing was done. I decided to write my column about the skills gap topic and received hundreds of emails from readers saying they, too, were experiencing the same pain. For a point of comparison, a typical column I wrote in the magazine elicited about 10 responses!

I knew I was on to something. I created a  “skills gap” folder on my desktop. A folder that six years later turned into a bestselling book entitled “The U.S.Technology Skills Gap: What Every I.T.Exec Needs to Know to Save America’s Future” published by John Wiley and Sons and available in all formats on Amazon. If I may, I would like to share with you some of the more important things I learned writing my book with the IT community in Canada, a country that has a rich tradition of technology innovation such as the first search engine named “Archie” invented by Alan Emtage in 1992 while attending McGill University, the Blackberry smartphone, Cognos’ business intelligence software or the telecom innovation done by Northern Telecom.

Beware of what economists say about the existence of a skills gap. Economists are trained to mostly look at current, and past, economic data and make predictions about the future based on that analysis. They often, in my opinion, can not see around the corner. Here in America, a number of prominent economists (doubly distrust economists who work at universities!), look at no increase in hourly wages or length of work week and laugh out loud saying the “skills gap is mostly corporate fiction”.

You have the same situation in Canada where economists like Derek Burleton, the deputy chief economist for TD Bank said recently, “the skills gap concerns are overblown and while there is some evidence of tightness across certain occupations in regions but our analysis failed to provide a real smoking gun”.

I suspect the 1,383,000 unemployed Canadians – with a 7.2% national unemployment rate that is higher than that of the United States for the first time since 2008 – could easily find some smoking guns. As could the dangerously high 14% of Canadian youth who are unemployed.

Nearly 25 years ago there was a subtle, yet profound, shift in the composition of global work. Many countries did not see it at the time because the shift was hidden underneath the euphoria of the internet economy gold rush and the focus on Y2K remediation. The shift was simple yet profound: the world had shifted to a services economy. And service economies demand different skills than those needed in manufacturing/industrial economies.

How ironic is it that Canadian Chamber of Commerce CEO Perrin Beatty’s recent comment about the skills gap – “we have a choice; either we act urgently to improve our competitiveness or we will pay a high price in lost jobs and prosperity” –  errily echoes the title of a report issued in America in 1992 entitled “America’s Choice: High Skills or Low Wages”.

The good news for Canada is that it isn’t the only country coming late to the skills gap realization party. As a point of reference the U.S.Chamber of Commerce is just rolling out its first skills gap initiative in America in 2014.

Some say the “skills gap” is really an “education gap.” If that it to be believed, and count me among those who support that premise, Canada is positioned competitively well as Canadian 15-year old students delivered strong results in global math and science tests  administered by the Organization for Economic Co-Operating and Development. Though a recent headline about the test scores in the Globe and Mail warned “Canada’s Fall in Math Education Sets Off Alarm Bells” because Canadian 15-year olds fell from 10th place in the 2009 PISA examination to 13th in 2012. (Note: in the same study the U.S. fell from 23rd place to 36th place!)

As Canada moves forward to tackle the issue of the “skills gap” what kind of skills will be needed? As I emphasize in my book “The U.S.Technology Skills Gap,” proficiency in math and science are “table stakes” skills for employment in the 21st century economy. While there has been much work done on the “new” skills (please do not call them “soft” skills) needed, in my opinion Accenture, the global consultancy, has produced an excellent report entitled “Solving Canada’s Skills Gap Challenges: What Businesses Can Do Now”. The report’s author, Janet Krstevski, lists ten skills needed:

  1. Leadership
  2. Problem solving
  3. Analytical
  4. Technology
  5. Project Management
  6. Creative Thinking
  7. Communication Skills
  8. People Management
  9. Industry Specific Skills
  10. Functional  Knowledge

Other issues that must be addressed to close the skills gap in Canada are 1)the need to hire the best and brightest to teach in the classrooms, 2)the need for Canadian IT workers to consider second careers in math and science education and 3)the need to start science and math education at age two to five.

Chinese proverbs are remarkably on the point. I would like to close with one of them.

“If you want one year of prosperity grow grain. If you want 10 year of prosperity, plant a tree. If you want 100 years of prosperity, grow people.”

The skills gap is real. It threatens and will challenge every country in the world in the coming 20 years. If Canada wants 100 years of prosperity, act aggressively to bridge the skills gap now.

Gary J.Beach is author of “The U.S.Technology Skills Gap: What Every I.T. Exec Needs to Know to Save America’s Future”. He is also publisher emeritus for CIO Magazine in the U.S. You can reach him at [email protected]
photo credit: Pink Sherbet Photography via photopin cc

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