Canada’s Labour Shortage

Canada’s STEM Education Gap: The Need for More Science-Based Professionals 

Gwyn Morgan
November 25, 2022
Society’s overall respect and admiration for science and scientists has probably never been greater. Why, then, do relatively few young Canadians seemingly want to become scientists? Why are so many schoolkids unwilling or unable to dig into the foundational learning needed to position themselves for an adulthood focused on a scientific career? Especially in an era when the economy is generating job opportunities by the tens of thousands for graduates with scientific training. Gwyn Morgan outlines the nation’s growing shortfall of STEM-trained professionals and looks into some ways to start overcoming the troubling inability of the education system to motivate Canada’s kids to focus on science.
Canada’s Labour Shortage

Canada’s STEM Education Gap: The Need for More Science-Based Professionals 

Gwyn Morgan
November 25, 2022
Society’s overall respect and admiration for science and scientists has probably never been greater. Why, then, do relatively few young Canadians seemingly want to become scientists? Why are so many schoolkids unwilling or unable to dig into the foundational learning needed to position themselves for an adulthood focused on a scientific career? Especially in an era when the economy is generating job opportunities by the tens of thousands for graduates with scientific training. Gwyn Morgan outlines the nation’s growing shortfall of STEM-trained professionals and looks into some ways to start overcoming the troubling inability of the education system to motivate Canada’s kids to focus on science.
Share on facebook
Share on Facebook
Share on twitter
Share on Twitter

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.

Canada has significant shortages of qualified professionals in STEM-related fields. Part of the problem is a lack of competent and enthusiastic science instructors, leaving many students feeling bored and unmotivated. (Sources: (graph) Statistics Canada, Survey of Innovation and Business Strategy, Tables 33-10-0299-01 and 33-10-0300-01; (top right photo) Shutterstock)

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.

China has the highest student enrollment rate in STEM fields, producing nearly 5 million graduates per year. The corresponding U.S. numbers are barely one-eighth that level, while Canada’s are much lower still. Worse, as the WEF warns, Canada is actually “losing skills” in STEM disciplines.

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.

Known for its annual Canada-Wide Science Fair, Youth Science Canada supports and encourages schoolkids to engage with STEM subjects through exciting experimental science projects, hoping this motivates young students to consider a STEM career. (Sources of photos: (left) Youth Science Canada; (right) Toronto Guardian)

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.

While immigrant professionals could help Canada address its STEM shortage, professional certification bodies – particularly in medicine – often hold up or reject foreign-trained professionals, leading to long waits and the proverbial “doctor who drives a cab.”

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. 

Love C2C Journal? Here's how you can help us grow.

More for you

Why Doesn’t the Charter Apply to All Canadians?

Everyone has an opinion about Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms these days. Does it really include the right to strike? Should provinces use the notwithstanding clause to suspend its rights? But there’s never been any debate about who should hold these rights. All fair-minded Canadians would be deeply offended by the idea that the Charter should be applied selectively on the basis of race or culture. Yet that is what Canada’s courts are doing. Peter Best examines an incendiary ruling in Yukon that sets aside the individual equality rights of Indigenous Canadians in favour of the collective rights of native self-government. Is this sort of discrimination a new Canadian tradition?

The Fake Meat Fiasco: So Much for Plant-based Protein Alternatives

It wasn’t long ago that plant-based meat alternatives – fake meat – began to take over supermarket shelves and fast-food chains. Environmentalists and animal-right activists promised that shifting to a fully plant-based diet would make us all healthier and help solve global warming. Governments jumped in to rhapsodize and subsidize the next miracle food. But all that soon began to fizzle: consumers turned up their noses at fake meat, sales plummeted and restaurant chains began dropping it from menus. Chewing over the exaggerations and false claims behind fake meat, Doug Firby charts how this one-time centrepiece of woke foodies has been spat out by decidedly dissatisfied consumers.

Doug Ford’s Use of the “Notwithstanding” Clause: Keeping Ontario’s Schools Open

As Canada’s courts continue to invent novel new rights for Canadians, conflicts with law-making governments become ever-more common. Decisions that are political in nature are increasingly made by unelected but intrusive judges, eroding the authority of legislatures – and the sovereignty of the people who elected them. It is time to swing the pendulum back, asserts Grant A. Brown. And the Charter’s “notwithstanding” clause, he believes, is a legitimate constitutional means to do so. This logic was on display last week when the Ontario government used the notwithstanding clause in back-to-work legislation meant to keep the province’s schools open. While a deal this week with the union representing illegally striking educational support workers led Doug Ford’s government to withdraw the law, its purpose was served. Are other provinces taking note? 

More from this author

The Skilled Trades Crisis and What to Do About it

Canadians have grown familiar with the frequently rocky post-pandemic service quality in the restaurant, hospitality and retail sectors. As well as standard refrains like “We’re short-staffed,” “We can’t find good people,” or “We can’t match the wages of other industries.” Less visible than these inconveniences is a potentially far greater problem lurking in the manufacturing, natural resources, transportation and other sectors: an acute shortage of certified trades workers. Giving three cheers to Canada’s hard-working tradespeople, Gwyn Morgan charts the growth of the economy-threatening shortage, surveys the damage it is wreaking, looks at some of its avoidable causes, and proposes some remedies.

Net Zero: The Dictator’s Dream Come True

Who would have imagined that Western countries’ increasingly fanatical efforts to phase out fossil fuels would leave two dictators essentially in control of both global energy security and the supply of manufactured goods? As Gwyn Morgan sees it, Western elites’ unreflective zeal is steering us not towards utopia but instead on a descent into a kind of New World Disorder. Not everyone, however, is suffering nor displeased at the worsening global chaos. In the dark halls and tortured minds of the world’s biggest dictators, Morgan shows, the West’s fantasy of “net zero” is something akin to “net awesome.”

The Greedy Ones: Comparing Public and Private Sector Compensation in Canada

Scientists may never trace the origin of our sudden contagion of shameless posing, credit-grabbing and self-pity – yet this strange syndrome proliferated throughout the pandemic. And it lingers still. The most recent outbreak can be found within the leadership of those who suffered the least during Covid-19 – unionized public sector workers. Now these unions are demanding extra compensation for… well, it’s not clear for what exactly. As the demands from this comfortable class grow, the gap between them and the rest of the economy becomes ever-wider. Gwyn Morgan lays out the facts and fundamental injustice of the expanding gulf in compensation between Canada’s public and private sectors – and the harm it is doing to societal cohesion.

Share This Story

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on print

Donate

Subscribe to the C2C Weekly
It's Free!

* indicates required
Interests
By providing your email you consent to receive news and updates from C2C Journal. You may unsubscribe at any time.