Premier Kathleen Wynne has asked a five-member panel to find ways to retool the workforce to suit the changing economy — to be more nimble and tech-savvy, more culturally diverse and more entrepreneurial.
The Premier’s Highly Skilled Workforce Expert Panel, to report this fall, will ask the public how colleges, universities, employers, unions, schools, the community and government could help Ontario make smarter use of the skills of immigrants, aboriginal people, francophones, women and youth to enrich its talent pool and promote innovation.
But at the launch of the panel’s consultations this week at a conference at Oshawa’s Durham College, Wynne said adapting to the “knowledge economy” may be such a key task, it may take a more ongoing body to oversee the issue.
She said she could see the panel recommending “a place or a group where our education decision-makers and employers and unions would have an ongoing place to talk — a think tank or whatever it might be — where those people could work together, not separately,” to map a course for reforming the workforce.
“There are a lot of programs in place. Which ones are working? Which ones are not working? I’d like to see an ongoing and collaborative discussion that would lead to action,” Wynne said at the 2016 Summit on Talent and Skills on the New Economy.
She said she has been told the one thing Ontario’s workforce lacks is enough “entrepreneurial spirit.”
“Some Durham College students and teachers were saying to me there are students from a university background who come to college to get a hands-on placement. That raises a question about the ability of students in a university setting to have a placement that gives them a hands-on experience,” said Wynne.
She also said she believes parents often discourage their high school children from signing up for valuable hands-on co-op programs in favour of more traditional credits — a bias against hands-on, experiential lessons she said we need to “grapple with as a society.”
The panel is chaired by former Liberal MPP and onetime education minister Sean Conway, now a Visiting Fellow with Ryerson University’s Centre for Urban Energy, and includes Professor Carol Campbell of the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, CEO Robert Hardt of Siemens Canada Ltd., Alison Loat, founder of the charitable non-partisan group Samara, which promotes political engagement, and Pradeep Sood, chair of the Highbury Canco food processing company and former chair of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce.
Queen’s University student Renee Bursey, who attended this week’s summit as part of her Master of Public Administration program, said she believes undergraduate degrees should offer more practical, hands-on education.
“The issue I have is that many bachelor degrees don’t give you the information you need to get a job. And when there is an experiential part of a course, it’s not always paid, which just increases your debt,” she said.
In contrast, her master’s program strives to prepare students for the pressure and pace of a real government job, she said. “We’ll have to write a cabinet briefing note with only one day’s notice, and we’re getting feedback from a real former deputy minister who is teaching us, so it’s a real-life situation,” she said.
Adam Morrison, director of project development for OTEC, a consulting group that serves the tourism industry, was one of many employers at the conference. He called for more co-operation between educators and employers and government.
“We don’t even agree on the same terms — some talk about the ‘essential skills,’ others say ‘soft skills’ or ‘employment skills,’” Morrison said. “It can sound like voodoo if you don’t speak the same language.”
What observers say:
Renee Bursey, Queen’s University master’s student: “When you’re an undergrad, how do you demonstrate you’re gaining these skills like problem-solving and teamwork that employers value? There has to be a way to communicate those skills.”
Enas Abdalla, Queen’s master’s student: “We need more industry practitioners teaching in universities to give us practical information. A lot of my peers have gone to community college to get that, but I don’t think you should have to leave university for skills you need for the labour market.”
Adam Morrison, OTEC: “The big idea the panel needs to focus on is how to align all these sectors to work together. And we need to start now, because change takes time. We’re a big province with a lot of stakeholders, and it’s hard to turn a big ship around quickly.”
By the numbers:
66: Percentage of Ontario adults with a post-secondary degree or diploma;
$ 20 billion: Cost to Ontario in forgone earnings because of wage gap faced by new immigrants;
34: Percentage of Canadian employers who agree grads are ready for the workforce;
44: Percentage of Canadian grads who believe they personally are prepared for the workforce.