A threat to both our quality of life and economic competitiveness
We live in an age when a nation’s quality of life depends on a sufficient supply of science-based professionals possessing the skills needed in our technologically advanced world.
The supply of these professionals was already tight, but a slowdown in replacing retirees during the past two COVID years exacerbated the problem. A recent CD Howe Institute report, entitled The Knowledge Gap, concludes that Canada faces a serious shortage of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) skills that threaten both our quality of life and economic competitiveness.
The report emphasizes that the situation requires urgent and substantive action, starting with a fundamental reform of secondary school science education, where many teachers lack scientific knowledge. This leads to “teaching from the book”, leaving students bored and unmotivated.
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Science is a fascinating subject, but it needs teachers with the expertise and enthusiasm to bring it alive, motivating students to pursue careers as engineers, chemists, doctors and other in-demand professions. Lacking adequate science skills, students applying to university have few choices and often end up in low career potential liberal arts programs. The University of British Columbia’s 2020 undergraduate report shows the troubling statistic that arts faculty enrollment was twice the combined enrollment in engineering, pre-medicine and all other science-based professionals.
A major obstacle to ensuring qualified science teachers is the union-based system that assigns teaching positions based on seniority rather than training. An example is a passionate young science graduate I knew who had to work as a part-time substitute general course teacher for years. This needs to change.
While there is much to be done to improve science teaching, that doesn’t mean there aren’t many capable and passionate science teachers in our schools. And it’s those science teachers who play a key role in helping an organization called Youth Science Canada inspire Canadian students to pursue STEM careers. Youth Science Canada is a donor-supported organization independent of government whose mission is to “Create value for Canada by fueling the curiosity of Canadian Youth through STEM projects”.
Each year, students in grades 7 to 12 enter their projects in more than 100 regional STEM fairs across the country, competing to be one of the 500 who have their projects entered in the Canada Wide Science Fair (CWSF). It’s high school science teachers who motivate and facilitate the participation of those tens of thousands of aspiring scientists. The 60th annual CWSF will be held in Edmonton next May.
Having attended past CWSF events, and as an engineer, I have been astounded at the scientific sophistication and creativity of projects, even at the grades 7 to 9 level. A large proportion of the students participating in the CWSF process go on to STEM careers that are fulfilling to them and essential to our country’s future.
Immigrants are the other source of STEM professionals. Canada has one of the world’s largest per-capita immigration programs featuring a well-designed “points” system that prioritizes those with in-demand skills. Federal authorities have also established support mechanisms to help immigrants integrate into their professions. Unfortunately, professional certification processes are in the hands of provincial authorities who delegate that responsibility to professional associations, which, all too often, exhibit little motivation to foster the integration of foreign-trained professionals.
Lamentably, this lack of motivation is also present in our dangerously overloaded health-care system. The Institute for Canadian Citizenship estimates there are thousands of foreign-trained doctors whose professional qualifications have allowed them to be fast-tracked for citizenship but are prevented from practicing because provincial regulators and professional associations refuse to recognize their qualifications.
A recent CBC News story entitled British Columbia-Situation Critical tells the story of Rajkumar Vijendra Das, who immigrated to Canada from India in 2010. It took him eight years to gain a residency position because only a tiny portion of residency positions are allocated to foreigners. Honieh Barzegari, a doctor who immigrated to Canada from Iran, finally gave up and joined a medical manufacturing company after years of frustration. She told CBC News, “The system is set up to fail international medical graduates”.
Canada’s immigration program is doing a good job of supplying STEM-trained immigrants with vitally important skills, but professional associations responsible for their integration need to be a source of support rather than frustration.
But what about keeping those skills in the country? Canada faces a serious brain drain. The CD Howe report states: “The evidence suggests that Canada faces a continuing digital brain drain to the United States and needs to focus on policies that help retain persons with digital skills by creating opportunities comparable to those they might find elsewhere.”
Unlike overcoming the educational and integration dysfunctions that have created the skills supply shortfall, reducing the brain drain is in the hands of business. Most firms have traditionally looked to the education and immigration systems to produce an adequate STEM skills supply. That attitude must change, both for their own financial survival, and that of our nation.
Gwyn Morgan is a retired Canadian Business Leader who has been a director of five global corporations.
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Regarding retention, Canada has so few SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises) due to another form of brain drain: companies. Venture investors aren’t interested in the long-term growth of a company in Canada. They are only interested in return on investment. Canada needs to develop more patient venture capital, whose mission is not to exit in three years but rather to develop companies that choose to stay in Canada. Such a model would require changes to the way investment is done to promote growth. Key to this would be the recognition of intangible assets such as intellectual property.