It’s an old cliche “Our people are our strength.” But do modern Canadian companies really believe that maxim? And do Canadians generally believe that our future lies in the development of people, the enhancement of our human resources? On the whole, it would seem not. Despite all the talk about the importance of education and the number of firms that proclaim their employees to be their most valuable asset, we still seem unable to get our education and training act together.
In an increasingly competitive international economy we must make people our advantage. But schools do not seem to be graduating the knowledge workers whose skills are essential for the future prosperity of our country. Most Ontario school administrators, when asked about the purpose of education, responded along the lines of “to permit healthy growth,” “to provide for individual selfexpression,” “to develop tolerance,” “to build good self-concepts,” and similar replies.
These terms are rooted in the language of psychotherapy, not in economic reality. They suggest beautiful ideals, and it is fine to feel good about ourselves. But in the absence of a well-educated and suitably trained workforce, we will not be productive enough to sustain the standard of living necessary to permit us to pursue open-ended self-development.
Canadians have lived well on the bounty of natural resources. Our ability to compete is increasingly diminished in the emerging age of the knowledge worker. Because it lacks liberally educated and welltrained young people for the developing business agenda, Canadian business is doubly disadvantaged
In this prolonged recession, business and government are downsizing and laying off many of the skilled workers who will be needed in the future. This response is of real concern, and not merely because it deepens and broadens recessionary hardship. After layoff or transfer to part-time status, employees will later return to full employment wondering when the axe will fall again. Efficiency measures may be an effective operational strategy for bad times, but they are often short-sighted. Their legacy of employment instability, lost experience, and personal insecurity creates costs not long hidden.
Unlike employees of former times, knowledge workers take their tools of production with them. Laying off knowledge workers eviscerates a corporation. As management guru Peter Drucker says, they walk out the door, taking their experience, skills, and knowledge, and often without loyalty to their next employers. Rather than simply cutting costs, then, we must learn to build for the future.
Our first concern must be with the quality ofeducation we provide our students. Information Technology Association president Janice Moyer has pointed out that Canada spends $50 billion annually on education, proportionately more than the majority of industrial nations. Yet we have an embarrassingly high illiteracy rate. One survey shows that nearly 40 per cent of adult Canadians have difficulty with writing, reading and basic mathematics, meaning it is likely that two of five Canadians is functionally illiterate.
As seen in our inability to be knowledgeably and technically competitive, the annual cost of illiteracy is now conservatively estimated at over $10 billion. The annual cost of private sector lost productivity is approximately $4 billion. Note that these figures refer to present shortfalls, and do not include the future need for skilled workers and professionals.
For instance, it is estimated that by the year 2000, Canada will need 25,000 new engineers. Current rates of educational development will not even come close to meeting that need. The answer to these concerns lies in a societal commitment to education and training.
Sadly, since school systems have often failed to prepare students for advanced education (hence the more than 30% drop-out rates in secondary schools) business must shoulder much of the responsibility. Companies which will survive will provide on-goingupgrading and education [original continues …]