Investing in foreign talent shows short-term promise - investing in youth means long-term prosperity

October 21, 2016

The Government of Canada’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth, created to bring fresh ideas on how to grow Canada’s economy in the long term, has come out with its first report. With it comes an important national discussion on where Canada is investing to build the country’s skills capacity necessary to drive competitiveness and prosperity.

The Council’s first recommendation: invest in high-skilled and entrepreneurial foreigners. Specifically increasing immigration by 50 percent to 450,000 people annually over five years and easing the process for skilled workers to come to Canada. These are the people, they say, who will build Canada’s innovation capacity to where it needs to be.

This recommendation will answer a critical and short-term need for talent. However, we must also ensure we are thinking of medium and long-term solutions and those solutions must include equipping Canadian youth with the skills they will need to drive Canada’s economy in the future.

Canada’s diverse youth population, including Indigenous youth, girls, New Canadians, Northern youth, and those in remote communities are demonstrating a huge capacity to produce the innovations that we all agree are so important. They have big ideas about how they want to tackle our largest challenges whether it be healthcare, environment or creating brain-sensing meditation headbands that track your state of zen.  But they are lacking the opportunities for experiential learning to put these ideas into action - to exercise this innovation muscle. Canada simply will not succeed at moving the dial and building its capacity to compete in the global economy without hearing the voices of youth and providing them these critical opportunities to build digital and science based skills.

After 23 years of delivering hands-on science and technology experiences to a collective five million youth across every province and territory, and through its own Youth Advisory Council in Ottawa, Actua has heard this voice, and here is what we’ve learned.

First, risk-taking is not encouraged in schools. This isn’t a surprise but we must understand the opportunity cost of youth not being encouraged to practice risk-taking. Failure is a critically important part of innovation. Being granted permission to fail, without pressure or consequence, is what frees the mind and imagination of genuine innovators. But Canadian kids who want to study science, math or engineering in university simply cannot fail. With many programs requiring marks in the high 90s for entry, kids (and their parents) quickly shun any project, course or experience where anything other than excellence is assured. It’s just too risky for these young people to experiment. Unfortunately, this does our young innovators a disservice.

Second, youth have a level of digital literacy advanced i well beyond what adults can even understand. But this literacy doesn’t always translate into digital skills or the ability to produce technology that will serve their needs. These youth can’t afford to wait for new coding content to be developed by the provinces in order to build their skills. Programs that provide these digital skills outside of the formal school system are critically important here.

Third, girls are reporting ongoing and overwhelming stereotypes from their peers. Many girls echo the sentiment that if science and technology doesn’t look like them then we don’t see a role for them. Girls that do take computer science courses in high school report being only one out of a couple of girls in their class and they are labeled as tokens or princesses and are asked why they would even bother. Thankfully, there is an increasing amount of attention on women in technology, but we must have evidence-based programs that support and encourage girls to pursue STEM-focused learning now.

Supporting girls is important, but so too is supporting and enabling Canada’s Indigenous youth who are some of Canada’s most talented innovators. They have grown up around incredible examples of ingenuity, entrepreneurship and finding solutions to problems most of us can’t conceive. These youth don’t need to be rescued, they need a strong and supportive platform for their voices and talents to be heard. They need learning experiences that bridge their traditional culture with modern science and technology.

Finally, youth spend twice as much time interacting with technology outside of the classroom as they do inside. This is the time where we as a country need to help ensure youth are not only consuming technology, but learning how to solve problems with it and build better technologies to solve emerging problems that Canada will face.

The Government of Canada is wise to have Advisory Council on Economic Growth comprised of Canada’s most prominent business leaders, who certainly have informed advice on how to boost our long term economy. I am confident they will recognize the absolute imperative of developing the young talent in our own backyard.