Canadian employers have been warning for years that they are having trouble finding applicants with the skills required to fill certain jobs. Among the skills they say are in most severe shortage are those related to the STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
In 2013, for example, the Conference Board of Canada estimated that Ontario alone could lose up to $24 billion annually in economic activity due to a skills shortage.* Polled on the types of workers they most needed, employers answered: postsecondary graduates in science, engineering and technology, as well as business and finance.
Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper, speaking in November 2012, said producing more skilled workers was “the biggest challenge our country faces.” He noted: “For whatever reason, we know that peoples’ choices, in terms of the education system, tend to lead us to what appears to be a chronic shortage of certain skills.” Among the skills he cited were those of “scientists and engineers.”
However, a new report from the Council of Canadian Academies disputes the notion of a skills shortage in the STEM fields. Entitled Some Assembly Required: STEM Skills and Canada’s Economic Productivity, the report concludes that there is “no evidence of a current imbalance between the demand for and the supply of STEM skills at the national labour market level.” On the contrary, looking at a number of indicators such as employment data and wages, the report found that Canada “appears to have a well-functioning labour market” where students are responding to market signals and personal preferences when choosing fields of study. The report further concludes that if Canada has a productivity or innovation problem, it is not related to a shortage of advanced STEM skills.
The CCA report was prepared by an expert panel of academics and business people, and was chaired by David Dodge, former governor of the Bank of Canada and currently a senior adviser to the Ottawa law firm Bennett Jones LLP. The report was commissioned by the federal department of Employment and Social Development Canada, which asked: How well is Canada prepared to meet future skill requirements in the STEM fields?
The report concludes that it is not possible to definitively determine what skills and knowledge will be required for the jobs of the future. However, the expert panel noted that STEM skills equip individuals with “essential tools” to adjust to changes and uncertainty in the labour market. The report suggests that a “sensible response” to the changing nature of work and technology would be to make sustained, long-term investments in fundamental STEM literacy at an early age, from pre-primary education to secondary school.
The expert panel further emphasized that while STEM skills are necessary, they are not sufficient for innovation and productivity growth. “There are many types of innovation, and not all of them depend on STEM skills,” said the report. “Complementary skills, such as communication, teamwork, and leadership, are also important.” The report also found that most STEM graduates work in occupations that are not, in fact, STEM-intensive. Many STEM skills, they noted, are applicable to many different fields.
These conclusions are similar to those of a recent report by the National Science Foundation in the U.S., which found that the STEM workforce includes employees across a wide swath of disciplines and jobs, and not just those with STEM degrees. A more meaningful way to frame the issue, said that report, is whether the U.S. is building a “STEM-capable work force” and whether “all individuals have access to a high-quality education that includes STEM.”
“Perhaps we ought to shift from asking ‘how many STEM workers do we need’ to ‘what knowledge and skills do all of our workers need to be successful now and in the future’,” said Kelvin Droegemeier, vice-chairman of the National Science Board, a branch of the NSF.
Interestingly, the CCA report pointed in particular to the importance of design skills to innovation. “Design, a facet of many disciplines and occupations, such as architecture, visual arts, urban planning, clothing manufacture, and esthetics, is increasingly regarded as the core problem-solving process of technological development,” says the report. In an interview, Mr. Dodge added: “Creative capacities are really important. Places like Emily Carr [University of Art + Design] and OCADU, which are not considered normally as part of the STEM community, actually end up being fundamental.”
Peter Taylor, another expert panel member and a professor of mathematics at Queen’s University, agreed: “Drama, film, literature … all of these are much more important than normally recognized. It’s not just a question of the techie folks.”
One area where Canada is missing out, said the report, is the under-representation of certain groups with advanced STEM skills. Women, while not underrepresented in the sciences, are underrepresented in the technological fields and engineering. For the Aboriginal population, meanwhile, the main issue is the lack of basic STEM literacy at the primary and secondary level, said Mr. Dodge. “The implications of these serious disparities are costly for society, the economy, science, and innovation,” said the report.
*The cited report was incorrectly attributed. It has been corrected.