09/30/2016 04:06 EDT | Updated 09/30/2016 04:18 EDT

Canada Urgently Needs An Inclusive Talent Strategy For Innovation

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We Canadians like to think of ourselves as inclusive. We expect our institutions to embrace inclusivity. But we have a lot of work ahead if we are to be truly inclusive.

The Trudeau government is rightly consulting Canadians as it aims to build inclusion into the heart of a new policy environment -- urging that Indigenous Canadians, women, newcomers and refugees, people with disabilities, and the under-represented groups -- all have equal opportunity to succeed in our society. Yet beyond inclusion in social policy issues, inclusion could also be a solution for our more persistent economic challenges -- low economic growth, stagnating wages, and stubborn rates of youth unemployment.

We are stuck with a hierarchical understanding of education.

Until we open up our minds about what "talent" and "best and brightest" should really mean in the context of the labour market, we are leaving many skilled people out of the innovation agenda. Right now we have an exclusive mindset when it comes to talent, linking it too much to spending a long time in higher education. This mindset is holding us back and we don't even realize it. We do a disservice to the very youth we wish to engage by not updating our policies and expanding our notion of innovation talent.

Even at a time of seven per cent unemployment and record levels of Canadians with a post-secondary education, Canada continues to experience "jobs without people, people without jobs."

The reason for this is simple: we are not educating and training Canadians for the jobs that are or will be available, but instead encouraging too many of them to pursue a general education over a long period of time, often at a high financial cost.

We are stuck with a hierarchical understanding of education. We believe certain types of education have prestige and earning power, while thinking other types should be left to the weaker students even though they fill an obvious need. Well, if we really want to be inclusive, it's time to value the people who went to trade school or college just as much as the people who went to grad school. In fact, the labour market is telling us this, but for some reason we fail to listen.

Surveys show technologists and technicians comprise more of the workforce performing research and development in Canadian companies than master's and PhDs graduates. Yet many people have a fundamental antipathy to, and undervalue, this kind of highly technical education.

To compete globally and break past the low growth scenarios economists are warning us about, Canada needs to be more innovative. The federal government has recognized this and is consulting Canadians on its Innovation Agenda.

Our leaders, managers and HR offices across the country all need to know that innovation occurs just as much on the shop floor as it does on the lab bench.

What I hope the government will realize from these consultations is that much of our innovation gap is actually an education gap. Innovation is generated by people and we are failing to develop enough of the wider range of talents that are needed for innovation to occur. Existing federal programs created to support talent for innovation focus primarily on the need for more doctoral graduates and post-docs, and have actually created a false hierarchy that values people with knowledge over people with know-how. That is not inclusive.

The result is not just that we are failing to make all workers feel valued, it is that we are failing to get the value we should from all workers. Innovation is a collaborative process. The most innovative companies and countries use and incent interdisciplinary, collaborative teams of engineers, PhDs, technicians, technologists, and tradespeople working together to solve customer, consumer and society's needs.

Our leaders, managers and HR offices across the country all need to know that innovation occurs just as much on the shop floor as it does on the lab bench. It is just as important to get our construction workers figuring out how to finish projects quicker, more efficiently and more sustainably, as it is for the next university incubator to develop a great new app. And if we really want to spur more innovation, it's time to support work-integrated learning in a much more determined way -- linking the actual knowledge, skills and know-how students are acquiring with meaningful placements in companies and government.

This past spring, three BCIT Business Operations students worked with Craftsman Collision. They spent four months at the company's flagship body shop looking for inefficiencies. With their fresh set of eyes and training they made recommendations which are now projected to increase revenue for the detailing company by more than $600,000 a year -- and that's just for one location. Craftsman Collision has 38 stores.

In Alberta, students and researchers in SAIT's Environmental Technologies group partnered with Canadian Floating Fence to help the firm build a containment boom that can be rapidly deployed into water to contain oil spills and protect the environment. The firm has now won an UN contract for clean-up of the Niger Delta, obtained standing order status with Mexico's national petroleum firm for remediation, and is helping with clean-up operations with the James Smith Cree First Nation in North Battleford, Saskatchewan.

This is the type of innovation Canada needs. To achieve this, we urgently need an inclusive talent strategy for innovation; a strategy that updates federally-funded research talent programs to be more inclusive of what employers need, and encourages support for undergraduates, technology students and skilled trades students. A strategy that uses data to help Canadians and companies know the forecasts for different jobs and the job market of the future. Most importantly, a strategy that recognizes that all Canadians are part of our "best and brightest."

If we do this, then we will not only show that we value inclusiveness, but we will actually become innovative.

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