Skills gap, women in tech among Canadians’ 3 priorities for innovation minister

TORONTO – The federal government does not have a monopoly on good ideas.

That was the first message delivered by Navdeep Bains, Canada’s minister of innovation, science, and economic development at Google Canada’s Go North startup conference on Oct. 28, and the foundation of his speech, in which he presented the leading priorities that Canadians have suggested for the Liberal government’s innovation agenda.

“For several months, we’ve held dozens of roundtable discussions… and invited Canadians to share their ideas with us online and through social media,” he said, noting that the government had received more than 1300 submissions regarding its innovation agenda and that many of these ideas will help shape the Liberals’ future mandate.

So which ideas have proven most important to innovation-minded Canadians? Bains shared three:

  1. The need to secure the right people – including women, immigrants, and training for the next generation – who can help us close the gap between the number of IT-related jobs posted and the number of workers available to fill them;
  2. The need to support companies’ efforts to compete on a global, rather than simply Canadian, stage;
  3. The need to harness emerging technologies to pursue new avenues of growth – or even achieve historic victories, such as a national reduction in carbon emissions.

Priority 1: Develop the next generation of workers

It’s no secret that Canada’s ICT sector is expected to have 180,000 unfilled jobs – the so-called skills gap – by 2019, and industry and government leaders both recognize that filling these positions will require a significant investment in the country’s workforce, Bains said.

“We want to make sure we’re bringing people of all disciplines together, because that’s when the magic happens,” he said. “There’s not a single industry that technology doesn’t touch anymore…. [and] in Canada we’re simply not keeping pace with demand.”

To close the talent gap, the government is concentrating its efforts on three key areas, Bains said: science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and entrepreneurial training; incentives for companies to increase workforce diversity, especially women; and immigration.

“As the father of two girls, I have to say that no country can afford to leave half of its brainpower on the sidelines,” he said, to loud applause. “And yet today, less than one in three computer and engineering graduates is a woman. That’s simply not good enough.”

In particular, Bains emphasized the importance of giving students entrepreneurial training, which he said would help them both integrate into the modern job market and expand it themselves; and of mid-career training, which he called essential if Canada wanted its workforce to remain competitive.

“Basic training should start very, very early, and continue throughout an employee’s career,” he said. “Children as young as my daughters, who are six and nine… should be taught to code at the same time they are learning how to read and write in English and French.”

Bains also emphasized that the government is putting its money where its mouth is by providing $2 billion to help university and college campuses across the country build state-of-the-art research facilities.

As for immigration, Bains said he that many a business leader had told him the government’s first priority should be figuring out how to incorporate the best talent the world has to offer into its ranks.

“Bringing in top talent does not take away jobs from Canadians. It actually has a multiplier effect,” he noted. ”One key hire can attract many others and create many more jobs.”

Priority 2: Build the next generation of globally competitive companies

Canada is very good at starting companies, but not at scaling them, Bains told the Go North crowd – appropriate, given that representatives from more than 500 startups were attending the conference.

“Not many people know this about Canadians, but we truly are a nation of entrepreneurs,” he said. “We start over 70,000 new companies every year.”

But when it comes to building high-growth firms – companies that employ hundreds or thousands of workers and post 20 per cent or more growth three years in a row – we’re decidedly less skilled, Bains said.

“If you look at the Canadian economy, I would say that maybe three to five per cent [of companies] are what we define as high-growth,” he said. “We have to scale up.”

For its part, the government plans to leverage its purchasing power to help, he said.

“In other countries governments use their purchasing power to help companies scale up, and the entrepreneurs I’ve heard from wonder why Canada can’t do more of the same,” Bains said. “They tell me it makes a huge difference when the government of Canada is an early adopter of innovation, and it also helps to have the government as a marquee customer when these new entrepreneurs go abroad in search of new clients.”

Another reason so many Canadian companies post flat numbers might simply be inertia, Bains said – many are satisfied with modest gains.

Others have been less than prepared for just how much digital technology is disrupting industries such as mining, agriculture, retail, and finance, he said.

“I’ve heard this from many of you – just as we are digitizing our economy, and just as we’re embarking upon this fourth industrial revolution, we need to look at these emerging technologies and how they’re going to impact so many industries,” Bains said.

Priority 3: Harness emerging technology to pursue new areas of growth

The third theme that has repeatedly risen in the government’s innovation-related discussions with Canadians involves harnessing emerging technology, Bains said, noting that in his opinion one of the most effective contributions governments can make is setting “big horizon” goals such as climate change initiatives and supporting companies in their efforts to achieve them.

“Make no mistake – driving economic growth through innovation is a daunting challenge,” he said. “It means setting ambitious goals, learning from failure, and never quitting…. Entrepreneurs understand that. But government needs to understand that.”

Presently, he noted, Canada ranks in 22nd place among the world’s 34 most advanced economies when it comes to research and development spending, while corporate spending on ICT workers is only half that of the United States.

However, he said, the government is doing its part to encourage innovation through research, investing more than $1 billion over the next four years to develop clean technology, and $900 billion to support 13 “cutting-edge” research projects across the country in emerging fields such as machine learning, big data, and clean energy.

“We are betting big on Canada to compete in these areas,” he said. “Why? Because they have the potential to create spinoff entities across all sectors of the economy.”

Canada’s future growth doesn’t have to be flat

For too long, Bains said, Canada has relied on trade and high commodity prices to boost its economy during periods of weakness – and in today’s free trade-driven, resource-light, and digitally disrupted economy, that’s no longer enough.

“Canada has gained so much over the past half-century, but we won’t automatically do the same over the next half, especially if we stay the course,” he said. “Low growth does not have to be Canada’s destiny. We don’t have to accept these pressures as limitations. We can see them as opportunities and seize the future.”

“Our government is prepared to think big, aim high, and act boldly, just like an entrepreneur,” he said.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Eric Emin Wood
Eric Emin Wood
Former editor of turned consultant with public relations firm Porter Novelli. When not writing for the tech industry enjoys photography, movies, travelling, the Oxford comma, and will talk your ear off about animation if you give him an opening.

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