I recently returned from Ottawa, where the Association of Canadian Community Colleges convened about 100 college presidents and vice presidents to make sure that post-secondary education remains high on the federal government's agenda.
We met with ministers, and assistant and deputy ministers, as well as with opposition members, and I'm pleased to tell you that colleges have their full attention.
The federal government recognizes the urgency of the looming skills shortage and they're looking to colleges (as well as to universities) to drive economic growth and to provide leadership in filling the skills gap.
Applied research at colleges is also very much on the federal agenda, since that research feeds into the innovation and productivity agenda. This bodes well for Douglas College and I think we can look forward to increasing participation in applied research.
College presidents had a lively discussion around student mobility - a discussion that reflected the high priority that Douglas College is placing on Learner Pathways in our new Strategic Plan [PDF]. They expressed the desire to better unify the college system, between provinces as well as between institutions.
As I suggested, the federal government is quite properly concerned about our looming skills shortage, as more people retire and fewer enter the workforce. They are also concerned about our economy's sluggish performance on innovation and productivity measures.
Today, about 4 in 10 Canadians are not participating in the workforce, for a variety of reasons. That number is expected to go to 6 in 10, meaning a smaller number of workers will need to support a larger number of people. That scenario should scare people who will be in the labour force in the years ahead, because it will impact pensions and healthcare.
Clearly, part of the solution is increasing immigration. Another part of the solution could be increasing birthrates. The largest part though is education and training.
The people who are or soon will be entering the workforce don't necessarily have the skills to move the economy forward and to win the jobs that will emerge. Hence the title of Dr. Rick Miner's report [PDF] on the challenges facing Ontario's workforce: People Without Jobs, Jobs Without People.
We could be heading for a bizarre scenario where high unemployment exists simultaneously with a labour shortage.
But that is where colleges and other post secondary institutions come in, because Canadians will need to be better educated in order for our economy to function effectively.
At Douglas College, we are assessing future demands for education, both from people entering the workforce and from people who need to re-tool in order to fill the highly paid, highly skilled jobs that will emerge. We will respond with new, innovative programs to meet those needs. I expect that our response will include more post-baccalaureate credentials - these are already huge in Ontario.
Colleges also need to do their part to drive the innovation agenda. Innovation is closely tied to productivity. On both those measures, Canada ranks low among OECD countries. Many people associate innovation with commercialization, and assume that innovation is the exclusive domain of the private sector. But that's not true. Innovation is needed in the public and non-profit sectors as well, where more efficient and effective processes and services can help boost Canada's productivity.