Opinion: Key to B.C.'s success is talent

February 02, 2018

Research Universities of BC Presidents' op-ed published in the Vancouver Sun

British Columbia is poised for success. We enjoy low unemployment and Canada’s leading economic growth. Yet our greatest potential rests with our people.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in B.C.’s high-tech sector. Expanding at twice the rate of the provincial economy — and growing faster than anywhere else in the country — the B.C. tech sector is an innovation engine. It employs more than 100,000 people in fields ranging from digital animation and gaming to life sciences, software development and clean tech. It is also transforming traditional industries such as mining, forestry, and oil and gas.

The key ingredient of that success — the crucial resource in a global knowledge economy — is talent. B.C.’s post-secondary system (research universities, teaching universities, colleges and institutes) has evolved to meet the changing needs of students and industry. Since 2011, research universities have increased student spaces in engineering and computer science by 35 per cent through internal program reallocation, however the number of graduates needed continues to grow. Companies in B.C. report the shortage of skilled workers as their leading concern.

The B.C. government has recognized and responded to this demand. In mid-January, the province committed to funding 2,900 additional student spaces in vital high-tech fields, leading to 1,000 more graduates per year by 2023. This is the most significant investment in post-secondary education in a decade, creating opportunities for students and developing the talent base necessary to build B.C.’s economy.

In Metro Vancouver and Victoria, there will be more spaces for students in sustainable-energy engineering, biomedical engineering and computer science. In Prince George, Kelowna and Kamloops, more students will be able to complete programs in software engineering, environmental engineering, civil engineering and manufacturing engineering.

These graduates, equipped with high-demand skills in science, technology, big data and engineering, will not have to leave B.C. to find well-paying, cutting-edge jobs. Homegrown tech innovators such as Port Coquitlam’s Finger Food Studios and Victoria’s Pani Energy are a talent magnet. The high quality of B.C.’s existing workforce means that B.C. itself has become a draw for talent-hungry international players such as Microsoft and Boeing. Our province is now home to more than 10,000 technology businesses, including a quarter of Canada’s high-tech game developers.

That trend is expected to continue as the industry grows — and the potential is immense. It’s why a group of B.C. post-secondary institutions is joining with industry in a bid to be Canada’s Digital Technology Supercluster, part of the federal government’s Innovation Superclusters Initiative.

A successful bid would position Canada as a global leader in the use of big data to advance economic opportunities, while addressing the productivity, health and sustainability challenges facing Canada and the world today.

One thousand new graduates per year is a welcome increase to help address the tech sector’s immediate needs. And there is much more to be done. Labour market analysis shows the demand for highly skilled workers with a diversity of talents in a wide range of sectors will be more than 900,000 in the next 10 years.

B.C.’s Research Universities will continue to work with the B.C. government, business and labour to ensure our economy and society have the talent infrastructure they need, and that British Columbians have the opportunities they deserve.

There has never been a better time for the province to make education a core component of its economic strategy, ensuring that we have the human capital and innovative capacity required to succeed in an increasingly competitive knowledge-based economy.

It is well known that an economy’s greatest assets are the skills and talents of its people. Expanding investment in post-secondary education will ensure sustainable economic growth, securing British Columbia’s future.

Jamie Cassels is the president of the University of Victoria and chair of the Research Universities’ Council of British Columbia; Andrew Petter is president of Simon Fraser University; Santa Ono is president of the University of British Columbia; Daniel Weeks is president of the University of Northern British Columbia; Allan Cahoon is president of Royal Roads University; Alan Shaver is president of Thompson Rivers University.