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)

Quebec’s Political Choice: More on University Tuition in Canada

National Post recently published a set of graphs looking at tuition levels in Canada, by province and by area of study. The trigger for these new data, of course, was the student crisis in Quebec, which continues to make headlines not just across Canada, but around the world. At the core of students’ fight with their provincial government (a section of the student population, not necessarily a majority of them!) is a proposed tuition fee hike over the next few years.

Most observers of the developments in Quebec, including this author, have indicated that tuition fees for university studies in Quebec are roughly half what students in the rest of Canada pay for their post-secondary education. (For more detailed facts and observations on university tuition in Canada’s overwhelmingly Francophone province click here). According to National Post figures, for a four-year undergraduate degree, the annual tuition is on average $2,519 in Quebec, compared with $5,853 in New Brunswick or $6,640 in Ontario. Only Newfoundland & Labrador – with its $2,649 annual tuition – can somewhat match Quebec’s low tuition levels (at Canadian standards). The tuition fees reflect 2011-2012 data.

English: Québec Province within Canada. Españo...

English: Québec Province within Canada. Español: Provincia de Quebec en Canadá. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The difference between Quebec and other Canadian provinces is even more dramatic though when one looks at tuition levels for specific areas of study. Take medicine, pharmacy and dentistry, for instance. While Quebec students pay $2,711/year for a medical degree, their counterparts in British Columbia pay $15,766 and in Ontario $19,462. A $2,284 annual tuition in pharmacy in Quebec becomes $8,975 in Nova Scotia and $23,144 in Ontario. The figures for dentistry are even more dramatic: while studies in this discipline cost $3,175 yearly in Quebec, they cost $26,406 in Ontario and $32,960 in Saskatchewan – a tenfold gradient!

Equally interesting however, and relevant to the discussion on provincial tuition levels, is the contribution to university operating budgets from (i) government funding, (ii) students, through tuition, and (iii) other sources. The percentage from tuition is one of the lowest in Quebec amongst Canadian provinces (17%). Only Saskatchewan at 16% and Newfoundland & Labrador at 9% have lower contributions – compare those figures with 33% in New Brunswick and 35% in Ontario. The Quebec government’s contribution to university operating budgets, on the other hand, is one of the highest in Canada, at 70% (it stands at 77% in Newfoundland & Labrador). This is in stark contract with government contributions of 49% in New Brunswick and 52% in Ontario.

What all this list of numbers boils down to, in the end, is political choice. There’s no such thing as a free lunch – or free university education, for that matter. In the end, someone needs to pay for the quality education students receive in Canada. This is the crux of the matter and there’s no right or wrong answer: who and to what extent should share that burden? As any Political Science student will tell you, life’s often a series of political struggles and decisions, with the more determined, more articulate and stronger advocates of one position or another being able to impose their preferences upon the rest.

In Quebec’s students vs. government fight both parties seem to be formidable opponents. Both are using compelling arguments for why tuition fees should go up or should rather stay at the current levels (inflation-indexed perhaps) and both are trying to increase their share of supporters. What started as an inconspicuous clash over financial contributions has become, over the past 3+ months, a complex political debate, with ramifications beyond Quebec proper. The choice Quebec makes will inform, if not define, the conversation on university issues in this province (and beyond) for years to come.