Blog > Canada’s CEO’s Committed to Solving the Skills Question

Canada’s CEO’s Committed to Solving the Skills Question

And they’ll work with colleges, universities, and anyone else with a solution
posted on April 27, 2015

Canada’s corporate leaders recently gathered together for a one-day conference to discuss Canada’s skills gap, and they invited educators, youth and non-profit groups to join them. Many themes emerged from the discussion, but two were dominant: employers are looking for help closing the skills gap and if Canada’s colleges and universities can’t provide it, they will look elsewhere.

These are the key takeaways from the Canadian Council of Chief Executives conference “Creating opportunities – Jobs and Skills for the 21st Century,” held Monday April 13th at the Shaw Centre in Ottawa. The agenda featured keynote speakers, and three expert panels, one each on youth, higher education, and employers. Contributors included consultants, think-tanks, and representatives of industry, higher education and youth, who contributed via prepared video statements.

The opening keynote address was delivered by Dr. Mona Mourshed from McKinsey and Company, who summarized a report, “Youth in transition – Bridging Canada’s path from education to employment.” The Report is drawn from a survey of 1500 youth, 300 Employers, and 100 education providers, with the production overseen by an Advisory Board of leaders from across industry, educational institutions, government, social sectors and youth. This session established the first theme, identifying the skills gap, how it is manifest in Canada, and what employers might do to help themselves.

Here’s the highlights:


  • Canada’s system is producing the right number and types of graduates compared to other countries. In general, Canadian employers in specific sectors think there are adequate numbers of graduates. Further, Canada’s youth find employment faster than those in most of the other countries we surveyed.

According to the McKinsey Report, Canada is producing enough graduates from the right programs to meet the needs of employers, or at least we are doing a better job than comparison countries, including the US, the UK and India. This would seem to contradict the claim that employers can’t find enough graduates to meet their needs. Nonetheless, Dr. Mourshed affirmed that that the problem is real, but it’s not universal, being more prevalent in regions other than Ontario. She also observed that added that the recruiting tactics used by employers affect their capacity to meet their needs. In her estimation, 20% of Canadian employers invest significantly in skills development, and they find the talent they need. The rest either “fiddle about and don’t get much,” or “do nothing and are oblivious.” This might have been the most important observation of the day. While Dr. Mourshed didn’t expand upon the investments used by the happy 20%, it’s a safe bet that they include academic experiential learning – co-ops and internships. If so, then it is possible that one powerful solution to this challenge is tactical – not strategic. It’s not a matter of finding the answer, it’s a matter of investing in it.

  • There is a fundamental disagreement about the quality of Canada’s graduates. The vast majority of our educators believe they are graduating high performers – yet more than half of Canada’s employers believe new graduates are unprepared for the labour force, as do most youth.

In the McKinsey research, respondents were asked if youth are adequately prepared for the workforce. The differing opinions are striking. Only 44% of youth respondents said they felt prepared, while just 34% of employers felt they were. Meanwhile, 83% of education providers believe their graduates are ready for the transition. This might explain why it appears that institutions are reluctant to address the issue – they’re not convinced there is one.

And from their perspective, they may be right – the most commonly cited shortcomings are found in behavioural skills, not in the technical areas that would be central to academic curricula. Those behavioural skills might best be acquired in an applied environment, perhaps through academic experiential learning, an approach that might well be used by the 20% of employers who find the talent they need. Better coordination between higher education and industry, through co-op and internship programs for example, might help to close the gap.

If the skills gap theme was explicit, the second theme, that employers will seek solutions elsewhere if our institutions can’t provide them, was implied, but clear. In every session there was at least one reference to an alternative method of training / education. Dr. Mourshed introduced Dev Bootcamp, a short-term, immersive program that “transforms beginners into full-stack web developers in 19 weeks” as an alternative method for skill development, an example of how youth might acquire marketable skills outside of a university or college. Kelsey Ramsden, is an entrepreneur who has launched her own courses to teach MBA’s the entrepreneurial skills they didn’t learn in school. James Bessen, technology expert and author observed “we have had this problem before during periods of technological change when the educational system can’t keep up with change, and there are no standards – such as during the Industrial Revolution and electrification.” These and other contributors served to make the case that the alternative methods were not only available, they were viable.

The final speaker moved the needle past viable. Sebastian Thrun , Founder of Google X, ended the day with a presentation on his current project - he is Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Udacity, an on-line teaching / learning program that promises “Credentials built and recognized by industry leaders to advance your career.” Thrun offered up Udacity as a sample of how education can and should be offered in an age where change is constant. He shared accounts of how they can develop, deliver, adapt and abandon curriculum as fast as industry demand changes, much faster than a university. The traditional educators in the room could not help but notice that Sebastian Thrun and Udacity had a place of privilege in the day’s events, but surely they also noticed that Thrun holds a faculty appointment at Stanford.

The Creating Opportunities Conference was likely seen by some educators as a shot across the bow, but perhaps it should be seen as a mutual call to action. Coincidental with the conference was the announcement of the formation of a Business / Higher Education Roundtable with a mandate to address this skills question. This is a very promising development, and the work of the Roundtable will be worth monitoring. How they begin their deliberations is to be seen, but a great starting point would be the McKinsey report, and Dr. Mourshed’s observations about the happy 20% of employers. Let’s assume that the investment includes internships and co-ops - colleges and universities are open to partnering with industry on these initiatives, and commitments to grow them would be a great place to start.

Paul D. Smith

CACEE Executive Director