Building BC’s Knowledge Economy: Surrey Leads the Way

January 31, 2017

Presentation to the Surrey Board of Trade

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Coast Salish peoples on whose traditional territories we are privileged to gather.

It’s wonderful to be here and thank you for coming.

I always look forward to my annual visit to the Surrey Board of Trade.  

It’s a chance to express how enthusiastic we at Simon Fraser University are about our association with Surrey.  

And it’s gratifying to hear – as I do – how enthusiastic the people of Surrey are about your association with SFU.

It also provides me an opportunity to reaffirm SFU’s mission to be Canada’s most community-engaged research university.

We pursue that mission every chance we get, as we will in May when we host C²U Expo, a conference celebrating the capacities and opportunities for communities and universities to work together for the common good.

The conference, which will draw participants from across Canada and around the world, begins with a two-day Community Jam at our Surrey campus. 

It then heads to Vancouver for three more days of community-university engagement.

Of course, SFU’s commitment to community engagement is not limited to conferences. It is embedded in our daily activities.  And it informs everything we do, from creating infrastructure to planning programs.

And that’s where I’d like to start today: with new infrastructure and new programs right here in Surrey.

I imagine most of you have heard our recent news.  But anytime federal and provincial governments commit $90 million for university expansion, it’s worth celebrating more than once.

With that in mind, I’d like to share a short video encapsulating the November announcement of our new Sustainable Energy and Environmental Engineering building in Surrey City Centre.

I hope that video gave you a sense of the spirit of that event and the significance of that announcement.

It is wonderful news on so many fronts.  

First, the new building represents the first phase of SFU’s long-awaited Surrey expansion – an expansion advocated for many years not only by SFU and our Surrey Advisory Council, but also by the City of Surrey, the Downtown Surrey Business Improvement Association and, of course, by the Surrey Board of Trade.  

In addition to adding much-needed capacity for education and innovation, it will enable us to expand our partnerships with business and strengthen our engagement with this community.

Second, the new building will enhance Surrey’s emerging City Centre, for which SFU has been a proud catalyst.

It is in this respect a further realization of the dream of the late Bing Thom, the architect who conceived Central City, designed the Surrey Central Library and, before his recent death, envisioned this remarkable new facility.

I am delighted that Bing’s partner, Michael Heeney, is here today. Michael was instrumental to the design of Central City, our original Surrey campus, and he will be overseeing the development of this new building.

Third, the Sustainable Energy Engineering and Mechatronics programs that will occupy the building will be key drivers of the most dynamic part of British Columbia’s economy.

I’m talking about the knowledge economy – that part by which humans, through their intelligence and creativity, add economic and social value. 

British Columbians have become extremely good at this, thanks in large measure to the strength of our post-secondary system.

Metro Vancouver’s “innovation ecosystem” is ranked 18th among all the high-tech hotspots in the world.  

High-tech industries now employ more people in B.C. than all traditional resource industries combined.  And their employees, on average, earn 75% more.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that, while B.C.’s tech sector is growing, we’re losing ground to our competitors.

In the last three years, Metro Vancouver has slipped nine places in that innovation ecosystem ranking – falling from 9th to 18th spot globally.

There are a number of reasons for this slippage, but one stands out – a shortage of talent.  B.C.’s post-secondary institutions are not graduating enough students to meet economic demand.

That’s the conclusion of an extensive employer survey conducted by the Conference Board of Canada in 2015, and updated just a few months ago.

The Board calculated that resulting unfilled jobs and unrealized business growth cost this province $7.9 billion a year in foregone GDP, and cost governments $1.8 billion in foregone tax revenue.

Worse still, this education deficit is depriving tens of thousands of British Columbians – mostly young people – opportunities for high quality employment.

In our modern economy, in which three-quarters of all new jobs require some form of post-secondary education, the Conference Board projects that B.C. is on track to train more than 400,000 skilled workers over the next decade.

That sounds pretty good – until you go on to read that this will leave a shortfall of more than 500,000 skilled workers.

That’s opportunities lost for thousands of businesses denied the chance to grow, and futures forfeited for tens-of-thousands of young people denied their full potential.

A portion of this educational shortfall is in trades and applied skills, and that gets a fair amount of attention.

But the Conference Board concludes that by far our largest educational deficit is in bachelor and graduate level education. 

According to its survey, 60 per cent of current and anticipated job vacancies require people with a university degree.

That’s not surprising given the skills employers say they most need include:

  • critical thinking;
  • problem-solving;
  • writing;
  • oral communication; and
  • an ability to work with others.

These are the skills businesses require to succeed in an increasingly complex and dynamic economy:

And they are the very skills that students acquire through an excellent university education.

Yet that level of education is where we’re experiencing our most pressing deficit – and it’s not just the Conference Board that says so.

In compiling its Economic Scorecard last year, the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade found that, compared to our competitors around the globe, Metro Vancouver gets a mediocre “C” grade for the percentage of people, over 24, who have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Just 31 per cent of our population has this increasingly necessary credential. In San Francisco, it’s 46 per cent. In Seattle, it’s 40 per cent.

We’re also lagging other provinces. The BC Business Council’s recent report, Innovation for Jobs and Productivity, shows B.C. well below the Canadian average in the number of bachelor and graduate degrees granted per capita.

It’s no surprise, then, that Metro Vancouver suffers the third-lowest labour productivity in North America.

Our educational deficit does not result from a shortage of qualified university candidates.  Even as employers go begging for university graduates, B.C.’s world-class universities are turning away prospective students with the capacity to flourish.

The Conference Board study found that over 120,000 British Columbians are currently unemployed because they lack access to relevant post-secondary education.

And, let me say, it’s heartbreaking to turn away good students.

But, given our limited number of funded spaces, competition has grown so stiff that the average entrance GPA at SFU has risen over the past six years from 81% to 87%.  And in some high-demand programs, entrance GPAs have risen by over 10%.

That means we’re telling thousands of qualified high school graduates that we don’t have room for them in the programs they want – programs that would give them the skills employers need.

This problem is particularly acute here in Surrey.

As I noted earlier, Surrey is B.C.’s fastest-growing city with one of the highest youth populations in Canada. 

Yet the municipality has the fewest post-secondary seats per capita of any jurisdiction in Metro Vancouver.

That’s the bad news.

But in identifying the problem – of insufficient university spaces to meet student demand – we also see the solution to the talent gap preventing our province from realizing its full economic potential. 

That’s why the recent Surrey announcement is so significant.

It provides a wonderful example of governments working to close that gap – and of Surrey leading the way.

In addition to highlighting the importance of soft skills, the Conference Board study points to specific disciplines that are in highest demand in the innovation economy.

Employers are looking for graduates in engineering and electronics, computer and information sciences, communications, business and management.

These, I am happy to say, are the very areas we have targeted for SFU’s three-phase Surrey expansion.

The first phase, now underway, will accommodate 300 new students in a Sustainable Energy Engineering program – a first of its kind in western Canada – while providing improved facilities for hundreds more in our existing Mechatronic Systems Engineering program.

The building will house state-of-the-art research labs that will attract leading faculty from around the world.

And it will provide space for entrepreneurship and innovation programs in areas such as clean-tech and green-energy. 

The federal and provincial governments merit much praise for recognizing this need and making this investment.  

And for that, I say to representatives of both governments: Thank you for your vision and commitment!

But, if we are to regain ground and establish ourselves as a world leader in building our knowledge economy, there is much more to be done.

And SFU is ready and eager to meet that challenge, right here in Surrey, with program expansions in two other high-priority areas: creative technologies and health innovation.

Just as our new Sustainable Energy Engineering program builds on the strengths of our Surrey-based Mechatronics program, our proposed Health Innovation program will build on the relationships we have developed with Fraser Health, and with health innovators and providers in Surrey’s burgeoning Innovation Boulevard.

The program will include Health Systems Innovation, eHealth and Informatics, and will link to our Faculty of Applied Sciences through courses in Health Technology Development.

And all students, in this and other programs, will be given opportunities to participate in SFU’s entrepreneurship programs and innovation network.

Creative technologies, the third area we have targeted for expansion, will build on the success of our celebrated Surrey-based School of Interactive Arts and Technology.

In addition to expanding our capacity to develop expertise in gaming, visual analytics and creative entrepreneurship, this program will enable students to harness creative technologies to enhance business productivity and to improve the efficiency of public service providers.

All of these programs will strengthen British Columbia’s innovation ecosystem, enabling businesses to grow while empowering young people to achieve their full potential.

In closing, I want to return to the Conference Board study and consider its “bad” numbers – but in a good way.

Recall that our skills deficit is costing B.C. $7.9 billion a year in foregone GDP and $1.8 billion in foregone tax revenue.

Flip that around and consider the dividends we stand to gain in economic benefit and human fulfilment if we pre-invest a portion of that foregone revenue in eliminating the skills deficit.

Viewed in this light, the announcement of our new Sustainable Energy and Environmental Engineering building and its associated programs is not just great news for Surrey, it also represents an important step on the road to greater prosperity and social well-being for all British Columbians. 

And, given this community’s growth, youth and dynamism, and with your continued support, I have no doubt that, when governments resolve to take some much-needed further steps, SFU and Surrey will continue to lead the way.