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John Manley: “Talent, skills and education: unlocking an innovation nation – remarks to the Waterloo Innovation Summit”

Date: September 16, 2016

Publication Type: Speeches

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Notes for remarks to the Waterloo Innovation Summit – check against delivery


One of the things that an event like the Waterloo Innovation Summit really serves to underscore is the degree to which innovation, at its core, is driven by people, not technology.

It’s why we’ve come here this week – to meet, learn from and share experiences with people who are leading and managing change in a wide range of settings and contexts.

People are the secret sauce in any innovative organization, from the smallest startup to the largest corporation.

There’s an old saying that in retrospect, everything seems inevitable. Psychologists call it hindsight bias.

But the success of companies like Google, Microsoft and Facebook wasn’t in any way inevitable.

Nor was it inevitable for any of the fast-growing tech stars that were born right here in Waterloo – companies like Open Text, Kik and Desire2Learn.

In every case, people and culture made the difference.

One of the perks of my job as President of the Business Council is that I get to spend time with the leaders of 150 of our country’s most successful companies.

Generally when we get together, I ask what keeps them awake at night. As the CEO of a leading Canadian company, what is their biggest ongoing challenge?

The one consistent response over the years has always been: finding and keeping talent.

A number of the sessions today are going to focus on aspects of that same question.

But before we get to that I’d like to highlight a couple of issues that aren’t on the agenda – issues I believe are vitally important in ensuring a strong talent pipeline.

The first is the quality of primary and secondary education.

Now, in raising this I realize I risk being the proverbial skunk at the garden party.

After all, in cities like Waterloo we are surrounded by smart, passionate and intellectually curious students and high achievers.

What worries me is the thought that while places like Waterloo are magnets for the best and brightest, many other young people across Canada are struggling to keep up.

A couple of weeks ago, we learned that only half of Ontario’s Grade 6 students are capable of meeting the provincial standard in math.

That’s down from roughly six in 10 five years ago.

Sadly, the decline in Ontario math scores reinforces a trend we have seen nationally over the past 15 years.

Every three years, the OECD tests the reading, science and math skills of 15-year-olds in developed and emerging economies around the world.

It’s called the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA.

In the first PISA study, in the year 2000, Canadian students ranked 6th in the world in math and 5th in the world in science.

By 2012, we had dropped to 13th place in math and 10th in science.

When The Globe and Mail asked me at the time about those results, I called it a national emergency and said it was time for a serious look at the quality of math and STEM education in Canadian schools.

A number of teachers’ unions took exception to my remarks. Frankly I wasn’t surprised.

But I was disappointed by the “What, me worry?” mindset of some of Canada’s education policymakers.

The response from some of Canada’s ministers of education, in fact, was to question the validity of the PISA rankings.

They asked their officials to consider whether we need to come up with a different way to measure the performance of Canadian students.

In my view, that’s like blaming the ref when you lose.

Besides, the latest Ontario findings make it abundantly clear that this is not just a question of testing methodology.

So here’s the hard reality. While the math and science skills of young people in many other countries are getting better, our students are falling behind.

That’s bad enough. But what’s worse is our reluctance to talk openly and honestly about it.

Innovation is one of the biggest buzzwords of our time.

You can hardly turn around in this country without coming across another report about building a more innovative economy, another set of consultations on innovation strategy, or – forgive me – another innovation conference, symposium or summit.

And that’s great – it’s a hugely important area of focus.

But let’s be honest with ourselves.

We can talk until we’re blue in the face about the need for more innovation – about BERD and GERD ratios, startups and venture capital, super-clusters and procurement programs – but if we don’t do something about the overall decline in the math and science skills of our students, Canada’s long-term prospects as an innovation nation are bound to suffer.

Later this year, the OECD is scheduled to release the latest round of PISA results, based on testing in 2015.

I can guarantee you that if the scores of students in places like Germany, Korea or Japan slip a notch or two, there will be something approaching a national outcry in those countries – because people there, and just about everywhere else, take these things very seriously.

My hope is that in Canada we will start to do the same – and soon.

OK, so that’s my Rick Mercer moment for today. I hope you’ll forgive the rant.

Before I wrap up, I want to flag one other issue that can have a big impact on the next generation of Canadian graduates: work-integrated learning.

Actually, if you want to see the power of work-integrated learning, just look around.

Waterloo University was the birthplace of co-op education in Canada, way back in 1957.

UW’s strength in combining classroom education with practical work experience is a key reason why Waterloo Region is renowned as a technology hub and the source of so many breakthroughs and new business ventures.

There’s a lesson here, and it’s directly relevant to many of the issues we’ll be discussing today.

At the Business Council, we’ve been working to strengthen Canada’s future workforce by building a stronger partnership between large private-sector employers and post-secondary institutions.

To help achieve that, we recently launched an organization called the Business/Higher Education Roundtable.

It’s made up of the CEOs of some of Canada’s largest companies, together with the presidents of some of our country’s leading universities, colleges and polytechnics.

Waterloo is well represented on the Roundtable, in the person of Tom Jenkins, Chairman of OpenText, and Dr. Feridun Hamdullahpur, President and Vice-Chancellor of UW.

That’s especially appropriate because one of the Roundtable’s top priorities is to promote co-op education and other forms of work-integrated learning.

The really good news is that we’re not alone.

Here in Ontario, Premier Wynne has endorsed the goal of giving every post-secondary student in the province at least one experiential learning opportunity before graduation.

Meanwhile, the federal government’s recent budget set aside $73 million to support new work-integrated learning opportunities, with a special focus on high-demand STEM and business fields.

Educators and students have known the power of work-integrated learning for a long time.

What’s exciting to me is that – through the Business/Higher Education Roundtable – we now have a mechanism to create stronger partnerships between employers and post-secondary institutions.

And through that, to encourage more work-integrated learning opportunities for students in every part of the country.

It’s not a magic bullet, but it is an important step forward in ensuring that Canada has the talent and skills it needs to succeed in the economy of tomorrow.

Thank you.

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