THE BLOG
04/02/2014 06:27 EDT | Updated 06/02/2014 05:59 EDT

Want to Close the Skills Gap? Start Talking to Young People

We are going to win in the business marketplace if we have the best workforce, and lose if we don't.

Business success is less and less dependent on capital and more and more on talent. Klas Schwab from the World Economic Forum recently said that "the world is moving towards 'talentism'." I strongly believe that's true.

Last week, the question of whether there is a real skills gap in Canada surfaced once again with the release of a report by the Parliamentary Budget Officer indicating that the current employment situation was the same as in 2008-2009. The data in the report challenges the idea that there is a growing skills mismatch in Canada. I strongly think the skills gap is well documented, but it's clear that there is another "gap" between what economists are saying about the data, and what our members at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce are saying about their real-time experiences in cities and towns nationwide.

Do we have a "crisis?" Forecasts are indicating some real shortfalls, particularly in certain occupations and in certain regions. We are facing both the demographic reality of an aging and retiring population, and a problem with wages which keeps employers from responding with simple wage inflation.

For the past three years, our members have identified the issue of finding the right people to do the job as their number one priority. Skills shortages are indeed regional and sectoral, but they are in enough parts of the country that it's a national concern and we are pleased the Federal government has taken such a leadership role in addressing it. The forecasts only suggest it will get tighter in the coming years.

If we are serious about closing the skills gap in the future, young people and their parents need to be much better informed about employment and income prospects when deciding on post-secondary education. The government is working to improve the information available, which will be helpful. For apprentices, we applaud the government's work toward harmonizing requirements and extending student loans, and we urge more efforts at supporting mobility across Canada.

For immediate skills shortages, the government must not risk squeezing out temporary foreign workers to the detriment of projects and job opportunities for Canadians. Penalizing abusive employers is appropriate, but the program should strike the right balance for access if Canada wants to retain employment and investment in many regional and remote locations, in particular.

On the positive side, the government is going to take a more strategic approach to economic immigrants. The new "expression of interest" system will be demand-driven and not first-come, first-serve for permanent residency programs. It will be highly selective, with a strong role for employers who simply cannot find or attract qualified Canadians.

The key point here is this: we shouldn't care if we call it a crisis, or if we are better or worse off than the rest of the world. We should simply recognize that the better we produce talent, the higher the level of talent we employ in businesses large and small, the more successful we are going to be. We are going to win in the business marketplace if we have the best workforce, and lose if we don't.