Regional Needs for Engineers: Matching Labour Supply to Demand

A growing number of studies and opinions expressed publicly in recent years point to the necessity of matching Canadian post-secondary education programs with labour market needs. While some coordination efforts may already happen at a local or regional level, no national mechanisms are in place to ensure that the type and number of university specializations are correlated with labour demand.

Recent data on labour shortages and surpluses suggest there continues to be a significant mismatch between the structure and needs of the job market, on the one hand, and the available work force, on the other. CIBC World Markets Inc. deputy chief economist Benjamin Tal suggested in an analysis of Canada’s labour market that “at least three in 10 businesses say they face a skilled labour shortage […] That number is double the rate of early 2010. [In the meantime] a quarter of a million Canadians have been unemployed for more than six months.”

Besides bringing in new immigrants to fill positions in sectors where there are job vacancies, educational programs could also help rebalance the existing labour market mismatch. To do so however, a national education strategy is required – this would help not just Canada’s federal and provincial governments, but also employers and individuals seeking employment. It would require a radical re-thinking of post-secondary education in this country and a new governance approach for this key sector of the Canadian society.

Ken Coates, Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan, made an important point in an analysis of the country’s post-secondary education:  “Our system is based on the deification of individual choice. People get to go where they want. We aren’t shaping the process.” A national post-secondary education strategy would not limit students’ choices, but would help guide them towards sectors and specializations that are in demand.

“We need to deliver the right people with the right credentials to the right economy at the right time,” added James Knight, President of the Association of Canadian Community Colleges, in a Globe and Mail article. Definitely not an easy feat. Yet universities and colleges along with the federal and provincial governments should initiate steps towards coordinating educational programs and matching labour supply to demand.

An example where this approach would be highly beneficial relates to regional needs for engineers. An assessment provided by Engineers Canada and Randstad Engineering indicates that all Canadian provinces will face job shortages in this area at some point in the 2012-2018 period. (Source: The Engineering & Technology Path: Choose Early, Choose Well, in Maclean’s magazine, Nov. 19, 2012)

Eastern Canada, Main Destination for International Students

British Passport, Canada, Thailand

British Passport, Canada, Thailand (Photo credit: dcgreer)

Maclean’s Magazine’s newly released 2013 university rankings reveal a very interesting picture of international students in Canada. Data (collected in 2011, on first year populations) indicate that universities in Central and Eastern Canada attract a majority of international students. Some highlights are relevant:

Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada have the largest number of universities where international students make up more than 5% of the student populations (8 universities in Ontario, 7 in Quebec and 10 in Atlantic Canada).

The highest concentration of international students is in Ontario and Quebec, given the overall size of the student population at many of the two provinces’ universities. Both Ontario and Quebec have some of the largest post-secondary institutions in Canada – significantly larger than universities in Atlantic Canada.

McGill, Montreal, Laval, Concordia (in Quebec), Toronto and Waterloo (in Ontario) are some of the largest universities in Canada that have over 10% international student populations.

The University of Toronto has 16.3% international students, out of a total of 71,000 full-time and 8,000 part-time students. While having a smaller student population (30,000 full-time and 6,000 part-time students), McGill has the largest percentage of students from outside Canada (21.3%) among the country’s big universities. (McGill also holds the first place in Maclean’s 2013 national reputational ranking).

In British Columbia (BC) and the Prairies, three post-secondary institutions – Simon Fraser, the University of British Columbia and the University of Alberta – are also relatively large universities where students from outside Canada constitute over 10% of their student populations.

There are however five relatively large universities in the Prairies and Ontario that have disappointingly low percentages of students from outside Canada. Calgary and Manitoba (in the Prairies) have only 4% international students among their student populations. At Queen’s and Ryerson (in Ontario) international students make up 3% of each university’s 20,000+ full-time students (3,500 part-time students at Queen’s and 14,500 part-time students at Ryerson).

The University of Ottawa (Ontario), with its sizable student population of 33,000 full-time students and 7,500 part-time students, has an inconsequential 1.9% level of international students.

A recent blog post here highlights why post-secondary institutions and governments at all levels across Canada are monitoring closely these figures and proposing strategies to attract more international students. They see this as a win-win situation: universities and Canadian cities benefit from an influx of qualified and talented individuals – who also sustain and create jobs locally – while the students can later pursue their careers and life goals in this country.