University-business partnerships develop inclusive career paths

This past fall, the Business Council of Canada released A Better Future for Canadians, the results of the Business Council’s Task Force on Canada’s Economic Future. We spoke with Goldy Hyder, President and CEO of the Council about the role the University of Toronto and other post-secondary institutions play in powering Canada’s economy.

What is the role of universities in Canada’s economy?

Our people are our strength.

Canada boasts the world’s most educated, skilled and diverse talent pools in the world – that’s why Canadian businesses thrive and why so many multinationals come to Canada. As noted in Deloitte Canada’s Competitiveness Scorecard, “Canada has a world-class, highly educated labour force that can be viewed as a key competitive advantage.”

But we cannot take this for granted as the world is changing fast. We must do more to leverage this competitive advantage. This includes ensuring all communities in Canada have opportunities for education and job training.

What are the most important ways universities and business can work together?

Canadian universities and colleges are some of the top post-secondary institutions in the world. However, the challenge is to ensure young people and graduates are equipped with the skills and experiences necessary to begin careers in the 21st century job market, which is marked by constant change and disruption. 

If we meet this challenge, Canada will reach its economic potential and ensure a better future for middle-class households and all Canadians.

This is one of the key reasons why members of the Business Council volunteered their time to help launch the Business-Higher Education Roundtable (BHER) several years ago. We need to do more to open channels of communication between PSIs and businesses. We need ongoing conversations between leaders in these sectors to understand how things are changing in both and the implications for Canada’s future job market — what skills, hard and soft, are needed, what gaps need to be filled, what changes are expected in the coming years. 

But we now also have a third partner: governments of all levels, that are increasingly becoming a part of these conversations and must play a key role.

The report mentions work-integrated learning as a priority. Other than providing more placements and opportunities, are there other things this should focus on?

The Task Force report rightfully prioritizes work-integrated learning (WIL) in the section on commitments by business to ensure Canada reaches its human potential because it is the best way to meet the challenges mentioned above.

Achieving the ambitious yet attainable goal of access to WIL for 100 per cent  of Canadian post-secondary students by 2028 will remain a top priority. However, to get there we need to focus on ways to diversify talent pipelines by looking at ways to incorporate students from a wider variety of study programs, such as the arts and humanities.

We also need to focus on ensuring all parts of Canada’s diverse communities have access to WIL and other education opportunities. This includes Canada’s Indigenous population, the fastest growing population in Canada. Engaging this population is so important because over time it will make up a larger proportion of working-age Canadians.

What is the role of universities versus the role of business in providing lifelong learning and development?

As noted in the commitments outlined in the Task Force report, Canadian companies should do more to prioritize workplace learning and development. Our members have committed to ensuring investments in workforce training meet or exceed the average level of investment by comparable U.S. companies by 2025.

But universities and all post-secondary institutions will have an important role to play, especially by offering programs focused on individuals at different career levels. Partnerships between business and PSIs can help with the training process, making the transition between industry and school easier. 

How can we improve on the start-up ecosystem that currently exists in Canada, improving links to commercialization and scaling-up?

Canada consistently ranks in the top five for having one of the world’s strongest start-up ecosystems, but our challenge has been around scaling up SMEs. Large businesses need to do more, especially when it comes to procurement from Canadian companies. This is why the Business Council will continue to support initiatives such as BDC’s new C.L.I.C. Challenge, which matches the CEOs of leading Canadian companies with Canadian entrepreneurs and innovators.

Since universities play a key role in the start-up ecosystem – just look at the success of the MaRS Discovery District and its impact on Toronto’s tech sector – they certainly should be a part of the equation. I think as we build stronger ties between PSI and businesses, as outlined above and through organizations such as BHER, to move the needle on WIL, we should also look at creating more partnerships that will ensure success of university start-ups and incubators. From investment to procurement to mentorship, businesses and business leaders can play a key role in helping to both commercialize new ideas and technology, as well as scale-up new companies.    

What are the most frequent themes you hear from other Canadian business leaders?

Our CEO members put a high importance on the value of education in not only driving economic growth in Canada, but ensuring a better future for each and every Canadian – no matter where they live or from what background they’re from.

They recognize education is key to not only our country’s success, but to raising people out of economic difficulties and giving more opportunities. Just look at how many of these men and women have been so active in supporting BHER’s emergence (Linda Hasenfratz of Linamar, Dave McKay of RBC, Marc Parent of CAE, Don Lindsay of Tech, John Baker of D2L and so many others).

But let me tell you a story that really strikes home the importance of education and it comes from the Council’s Speaking of Business podcast in which I interview members. It’s a story about a five-year old boy who immigrated with his family to Canada from the Communist regime in Romania. They left their country with nothing more than $60 in their pocket and a few suitcases of clothes. But as he tells in the podcast, “what they had of value was what was in their heads.” His parents’ extensive university and professional education are what enabled the family  to quickly thrive in their new country. The story also underscored the importance of providing their children with the same higher education opportunities in their new country.

Today, some 60 years later, this individual was recently named CEO of the year by The Globe and Mail. He is none other than Calin Rovinescu, CEO of Air Canada, and he is also the current Chancellor of the University of Ottawa.  

I can’t think of a better story that reflects this link between education and prosperity.

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