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Comment: Training of students needs to be better aligned with skills employers need

A commentary by the CEO of Mitacs, a not-for-profit organization that fosters growth and innovation in Canada by solving business challenges with research solutions from academic institutions.
Hands type on a keyboard in Vancouver. CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

For many years, high resource prices, low competition and close integration with the U.S. market meant that B.C. and Canada did not have to rely on innovation to drive economic growth.

Now, however, increasingly volatile resource prices, global instability and the rise of disruptive technologies have made it clear: If we want to continue to grow and prosper, we need to be serious about innovation.

Innovation will help deliver the type of sustainable, inclusive growth we need in the face of rising inflation and warning of difficult economic headwinds to come.

This, however, may be easier said than done.

In the summer of 2021, the Conference Board of Canada published its innovation report card which compared Canada’s innovation performance to its peer countries and broke down the performance of individual provinces.

Across the board, the results left much to be desired. Canada ranked 11th out of 16 countries – and received an overall grade of C. B.C. received a D.

This lagging performance comes despite the fact Canada is home to one of the world’s most highly educated populations – an essential component of any successful innovation ecosystem.

This dichotomy between academic performance and innovation performance is sometimes referred to as Canada’s innovation paradox.

And, if we are to power long-term growth fuelled by innovation, we need to understand why such a gap exists.

That is why Mitacs partnered with the Brookfield Institute to put together a report, entitled Sharpening Canada’s Skills Advantage, that looked at the kinds of innovation activities leading Canadian companies are undertaking and the skills they require.

The results demonstrated that part of the challenge is that we have not adequately aligned our educational skills and knowledge with the type of training needed to enhance the impact of innovation and, ultimately, improve productivity and economic growth for the benefit of Canada.

Organizations told us that STEM-related skills were the most important (with 60 per cent citing this broad category as critical to their innovation project), but the second most important skills category was critical thinking and creativity (49 per cent).

Employers also identified a series of digital skills of varying complexity as critical: From use of productivity software and basic data skills to computer science, advanced data skills, and programming and software skills. In conjunction with these more technical skill sets, organizations also identified problem identification, curiosity, judgment and decision making, and collaboration and teamwork skills as critical for their innovation projects.

What this tells us is that simple scientific knowledge on its own is not enough and that we need to make sure skills development also extends beyond the classroom. For organizations to get ahead, their employees need to have the types of skills that encourage creative thinking and teamwork.

On the flip side, our surveys showed that interns lack confidence in the professional skills that businesses rely on to innovate.

Self-reported confidence in productivity software and spreadsheets and visualizations were just 54 per cent and 51 per cent, respectively. For project management skills, confidence is even lower. Only 24 per cent of respondents said they felt confident in their abilities.

This suggests that there is a gap between what Canadian students are trained to do and what they end up doing once they join the workforce. This skills gap could be affecting the agility of people working in innovation and needs to be addressed if we are to meaningfully tackle the innovation paradox.

The next generation of innovators needs to be well-versed in professional skills if it is to succeed in powering the B.C. and Canadian economies. There is, however, a clear gap between the academic knowledge our innovators have when compared to more practical skills that people in the innovation sector needs to succeed.

All of this points to a need for greater alignment between the skills employers are looking for with the training we are currently providing to students, including work-integrated learning.

Mitacs is part of vast community, generously supported by the B.C. and federal governments, that supports the skills development of some of Canada’s most highly qualified personnel, including institutions of higher education, training providers, and governments of all levels.

Our hope is that we can help this broader community continually improve their hugely important work. We know that young British Columbians have exceptional innovation potential, but there is more work to be done to fully realize it.

We hope to continue to be a partner in helping this province – and the country – realize its innovation potential.