Remarks to the Standing Committee on Finance – Pre-Budget Consultations

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Delivered by Valerie Walker, Executive Director, Business/Higher Education Roundtable

Mr. Chair, committee members, thank you for inviting me here today.

The Business/Higher Education Roundtable – BHER, for short – brings together the leaders of some of Canada’s largest companies and top post-secondary institutions, from all regions of the country and a wide array of industries. Created by the Business Council of Canada in 2015, BHER has three central objectives: to assist young Canadians as they transition from school to work, to strengthen Canada’s research and commercialization capacity, and to help employers adapt to the economy of the future.

When we think about Canada’s economic future, there are a lot of uncertainties. Our biggest trading relationship is under a cloud. Digital disruption is eliminating some jobs and creating others. Whether we like it or not, our population is aging. That’s bound to create serious labour market – and fiscal – challenges.

In the face of all this uncertainly, we believe it is time for the Government of Canada to focus on something it can control: helping young Canadians prepare for the skills economy of tomorrow. We believe that the most efficient and effective way to prepare Canada’s youth for the coming skills revolution is to embrace work-integrated learning – WIL. Our research shows that WIL experiences – including co-op placements, internships, apprenticeships and applied research projects – provide meaningful learning opportunities for students, and a pathway to career success.

My colleagues and I spent the summer building a coalition of more than 25 national organizations and associations – representing students, employers and institutions. All agree: now is the time to act. Now is the time to ensure that every post-secondary student in Canada has the opportunity to complete a meaningful work experience while still in school. And because these groups all feel so strongly about the importance of WIL, they joined together to formally endorse BHER’s recommendations to this committee, one of which is to recognize the need for a National WIL Strategy.

So what does this look like in practical terms? Right now, roughly four in 10 Canadian postsecondary students – that’s 150,000 young people every year – miss out on the opportunity for a WIL experience before they finish school.

A national WIL strategy would focus the efforts of employers, educators and governments – both federal and provincial. It would allow us to achieve our goal of 100 per cent WIL in the most effective and efficient way possible.

In recent days I’ve been asked a question that perhaps has occurred to some of you: Why should the Government of Canada get behind this? And how?

My answer is simple. The federal government is already involved in WIL. Budget 2016 committed $73 million to the Student Work placement program. This program provides funding to industry associations that, in turn, create WIL pilot programs including wage subsidies to employers offering quality WIL placements. The wait-lists for participation in these pilots are long, and the early evaluation and outcomes are positive.

We believe there is a huge opportunity to expand work placements for students across Canada, helping us close that gap of 150,000. Employers and educators are already acting, and willing to step-up these efforts, but there is an important role for the federal government as well.

To help us get there, we are asking the federal government to do four things:

1. Expand the programs that it is already funding to increase employer participation. These incentives are especially important for small- and medium-sized employers – SMEs – and for students from under-represented groups, including First Nations, Metis and Inuit students.

2. Fund a national platform to help connect employers, educators and students. We need this matching platform to increase the supply of quality placements from employers. This, in turn, will motivate post-secondary institutions to adapt and build more WIL into their programs.

3. Build WIL into the Innovation Superclusters Initiative and the Economic Strategy Tables. These initiatives already have committed industry leaders around the table – men and women who are anxious to help develop the talent pipeline they will need to succeed.

4. Work with us. We aren’t asking you to create a strategy, and we aren’t looking to government to do the heavy lifting. But we need your support to get started. Like I said off the top, we spent the summer building a broad coalition of partners ready to come together and execute a national WIL strategy that we’ve created. The federal government has an important role to play, but this is certainly not your responsibility alone.

We recognize and thank the Government of Canada for the investments it has made, and we urge you to continue creating new opportunities for young people – breaking down barriers that prevent Canadians from reaching their full potential.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you. I would be happy to answer questions.