We live in an age when a nation’s quality of life depends on a sufficient supply of science-based professionals possessing the skills needed to operate, maintain, build and design the innumerable complex systems of our technologically advanced world. The supply of these professionals in Canada was already tight for a number of years, but a slowdown in the replacement of retirees during the past two Covid-19 years has exacerbated the problem. A recent C.D. Howe Institute report, The Knowledge Gap, concludes that Canada faces a serious shortage of practitioners in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) as well as digital fields, a shortage that threatens both our quality of life and economic competitiveness.
The report emphasizes that the situation requires urgent and substantive action, starting with a fundamental reform of secondary school science education, where many teachers actually lack science knowledge. This inexcusable system-wide failure leads to “teaching from the book,” leaving students bored and unmotivated. The sciences and mathematics are fascinating subjects, but teaching them requires educators with the expertise and enthusiasm needed to bring the subject alive, motivating students to learn them thoroughly, to complete their courses wanting to learn even more and then, hopefully, to pursue careers as engineers, chemists, doctors or other in-demand professionals.
Instead, coming out of high school lacking adequate science skills, many students applying to university have few choices and often end up in low-career-potential liberal arts or ideologically-driven “studies” programs. As I wrote in a recent column about Canada’s acute shortage of skilled tradespeople, the University of British Columbia’s 2020 undergraduate report shows the troubling statistic that arts faculty enrollment was twice the combined enrollment in engineering, pre-medicine and all other science-based professions.
While STEM jobs are plentiful, Canada is just not supplying the needed graduates. Although estimates of the size and overall proportion of the STEM workforce vary wildly, a “traditional” definition used by the U.S. National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics estimated that in 2019 about 21.7 million (14 percent of the workforce) were employed in a STEM job requiring a bachelor’s degree or higher. (While some estimates are even higher, they overlap with the skilled trades, which have a different educational path and are a largely separate labour market issue.) We can presume the proportion is very similar in Canada.
According to this article in Forbes magazine, based on data from Stastita and the World Economic Forum, already by 2013 some 40 percent of university students in China were enrolled in STEM fields. This was more than twice the proportion in the U.S. and, other reports suggest, the proportion in Canada is nearly identical to that in the U.S. China had produced 4.7 million recent graduates in the STEM fields, compared to fewer than 570,000 in the U.S. Canada, the WEF report stated bluntly, is “losing skills” in the STEM fields.
A major obstacle to Canada producing qualified science schoolteachers is the union-based system that assigns teaching positions based on seniority rather than training qualifications matched to the actual needs of schools. One example is a passionate young science graduate I knew who had to work as a part-time substitute general course teacher for years. This needs to change. It would of course be naïve to expect provincial governments to have the fortitude to break the political power of teachers’ unions. But improvements could be achieved indirectly, such as by empowering parents to send their kids to schools with the right teachers, through achievable provincial policy changes like school vouchers and greater latitude for charter schools.
While there is much to be done to improve science teaching, that doesn’t mean there aren’t thousands of capable and passionate science teachers. Such teachers are helping an organization called Youth Science Canada inspire Canadian students to pursue STEM careers. Youth Science Canada is a donor-supported organization independent of government whose mission is to “fuel the curiosity of Canadian Youth through STEM projects.” Each year, students in grades 7-12 enter the organization’s projects in more than 100 regional STEM fairs across the country, competing to be one of the 500 who have their projects entered in the Canada Wide Science Fair (CWSF). It is high school science teachers who motivate and facilitate the participation of those tens of thousands of aspiring scientists.
The 60th annual CWSF will be held in Edmonton next May. Having attended past CWSF events, this engineer has been astounded at the scientific sophistication and creativity of projects, even at the grade 7-9 level. A large proportion of the students who participate in the CWSF process go on to STEM careers that are both fulfilling to them and important to our country’s future.
Immigrants are Canada’s other source of additional STEM professionals. Canada has among the world’s highest per-capita levels of immigration, and the country’s immigration program features a well-designed “points” system giving priority to those with in-demand skills. Federal authorities have also established support mechanisms to help such immigrants integrate into their professions. Professional certification, however, falls within provincial jurisdiction. The provinces delegate much of the responsibility and processes to professional associations which, all too often, exhibit little motivation to foster integration of foreign-trained professionals.
Lamentably, this lack of motivation is also present in our dangerously overloaded health care system. The Institute for Canadian Citizenship estimates there are thousands of foreign-trained doctors whose professional qualifications have allowed them to be fast-tracked for citizenship but who are prevented from practising because provincial regulators and professional associations refuse to recognize their qualifications.
This recent CBC News article tells of the struggles of two immigrant physicians to be allowed to practise in Canada. Rajkumar Vijendra Das immigrated to Canada from India in 2010. It took him eight years to gain a medical residency because only a tiny proportion of such positions are allocated to foreigners. While Das at least obtained a position in the end, Honieh Barzegari was lost to Canadian medicine. The immigrant from Iran finally gave up after years of frustration and took a job with a medical manufacturing company. “The system is set up to fail international medical graduates,” she says.
Canada’s immigration program is doing a good job of supplying the country with STEM-trained immigrants holding vitally important skills, but the provincial governments and professional associations responsible for their integration need to become a source of support rather than a needless and, too often, insurmountable hurdle.
But what about keeping those skills in the country? Canada is also suffering a serious brain drain. The above-mentioned CD Howe report states: “The evidence suggests that Canada faces a continuing digital brain drain to the United States, and needs to focus on policies that help retain persons with digital skills by creating opportunities comparable to those they might find elsewhere.” Unlike overcoming the educational and integration dysfunctions that have created the skills supply shortfall, which is mostly up to government and regulatory authorities, reducing the brain drain is largely in the hands of business. Most firms have traditionally looked to the education and immigration systems to produce an adequate STEM skills supply. That attitude must change – both for their own financial survival and that of our nation.
Gwyn Morgan is a retired business leader who has been a director of five global corporations.
Source of main image: Shutterstock.