Opinion: Investing in homegrown talent will benefit British Columbia

November 22, 2018

Op-ed published in the Vancouver Sun

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

British Columbia faces two challenges – one that threatens the future of our economy and another that threatens the future of our youth. There is, however, a single solution that can address both.

The first of these challenges is our shortage of talent. 

A recent report from the Business Development Bank of Canada found that nearly half of B.C.’s small and medium-sized businesses had difficulty recruiting new employees during the last 12 months.

This has serious economic consequences. A 2016 study by the Conference Board of Canada found that B.C.’s lack of educated workers costs the province $7.9 billion a year in lost GDP, and costs governments $1.8 billion in foregone tax revenues.

Longer-term indicators are no less concerning. B.C.’s Labour Market Outlook estimates that the province will need over 900,000 new workers in the next decade, with 77 per cent of these requiring some form of post-secondary education.

That leads to the second challenge – B.C.’s lack of educational capacity. Over the past decade, as the world economy has become increasingly knowledge-based, this province was one of only two to cut expenditures on post-secondary institutions. As of 2016, B.C. spent less on these institutions and their students per resident aged 18-21 than all other provinces. Funding has been especially inadequate for economically vital graduate programs.

Historically, we papered over this underinvestment by recruiting talent from other jurisdictions. B.C. skimped on skills-building, confident we could make up shortages with people clamouring to enjoy our enviable west coast scenery, climate and lifestyle.

That was never good policy. Long term, it had the potential to leave our domestic population less able to participate productively in the economy. But the policy is now also failing in the short term. High housing costs and fierce competition for talent have overtaken our natural advantages. Candidates are increasingly foregoing the allure of the west coast for job opportunities elsewhere.

Recognizing this problem, the current provincial government has started to re-invest. Last January, it announced 2,900 new tech spaces across the province. At SFU, that funded 320 undergraduate and 120 graduate spaces in Western Canada’s first Sustainable Energy Engineering program. This investment will create opportunities for British Columbians even as it builds SFU’s strengths in clean energy technologies, and provides the workers and innovators B.C. requires to develop and scale its clean tech and sustainable energy sectors.

This is a good start. However, there is much more to be done if we are to address the escalating demand for talent that the Labour Market Outlook identifies in areas such as health care and technical services.

Anticipating these needs, SFU has developed program proposals in Health Innovation and Creative Technologies for its Surrey campus. We’re also ready to add 1,000 entry spaces, expanding educational opportunities in an underserved region that boasts B.C.’s youngest and fastest-growing population, including large numbers of Indigenous students.

Provincial legislators seem attentive and encouraging. The all-party committee of MLAs charged with providing advice on the 2019 BC Budget recently recommended increased funding to expand student seats available at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and SFU’s Surrey campus “to address the increased demand for postsecondary training and education in B.C.”

This recommendation reflects a welcome recognition that investing in post-secondary education is not only good social policy, but has also become essential economic policy. Given B.C. can no longer rely on in-migration to address our talent shortages, we need to ramp up our commitment to educating our own population.

By doing so, we can provide more young people the opportunity to achieve their full potential, while providing our economy the means to grow for the benefit of all citizens.