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Shortfalls in Key Skills Prompt Need for Improvements in Post Secondary Education Sector

A high performing post-secondary education sector is a critical driver of economic performance and social well-being

Toronto, November 4, 2014—On the eve of the 2nd Annual Skills and Post Secondary Education Summit, The Conference Board of Canada’s latest report suggests that, although Canada has a good track record in producing highly educated  graduates, there are signs of deficits in key skills needed to sustain and enhance our economic performance and social well-being.

“Canada is doing quite well in producing people with university, college, and trade credentials. But actual skills attainment in a number of key areas, like critical thinking, numeracy, innovation and employability skills, is underwhelming,” says Daniel Munro, co-author of the report. “We need to do a better job of educating and training people to acquire the right skills to succeed professionally and contribute socially.”


  • Canada is a world leader in post-secondary education attainment—53 per cent of Canada’s population has a post-secondary education credential and another 12 per cent hold trades certificates.
  • Literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills of Canadian adults are less impressive for a country with such a high level of PSE attainment.
  • Employer-sponsored and workplace training lag those of international peers and tend to benefit those who least need skills upgrading.
  • A high performing post-secondary education sector is a critical driver of economic competitiveness and social, political, cultural and individual well-being.
  • More attention to issues of quality in PSE and skills development is needed.

The report, Skills—Where are We Today? The State of Skills and PSE in Canada, indicates that roughly 53 per cent of Canadian adults hold a university or college credential, and another 12 per cent hold trade certificates. Moreover, Canadian adults perform at or above the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average in literacy and problem-solving in technology-rich environments. But given that proportionally more Canadians have a higher education than people in other countries, our literacy and problem-solving scores should be higher.

Canada’s performance is weak in adult numeracy, where we fall below the OECD average, and in the number of graduates from the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines. The proportion of students graduating with degrees in engineering, physical and life sciences, mathematics, and computer and information sciences (relative to other fields) has stagnated over the past twenty years. Canada is also producing too few people with advanced degrees (particularly PhDs), especially in key STEM fields.

Given the increased importance of science, technology and advanced research skills to innovation, commercialization and productivity, these trends could undermine economic and social well-being. Canada has trailed far behind international peers in productivity growth and innovation—earning C or D grades for productivity and a consistent D grade in innovation—over the past few decades in The Conference Board of Canada’s How Canada Performs report cards. To improve innovation and productivity performance, Canada will need more people with knowledge and technical skills in the sciences, engineering, and computer and information sciences; more PhD graduates with advanced research skills to contribute in non-academic settings; and graduates with better innovation skills—including problem-solving, creativity, risk assessment and management, relationship-building, entrepreneurial savvy, and business management skills.

Employers are also concerned about the essential, innovation, and employability skills of graduates. A recent Conference Board of Canada survey found that over 70 per cent of employers observed gaps in job candidates’ and recent hires’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Between one-third and one-half also said that they are seeing deficits in literacy, communication (e.g, writing and speaking), and teamwork skills among recent graduates and job candidates. The surveyed employers note that these skills gaps are leading to lower quality products and services, weaker productivity, and less innovation. The latter is especially troubling given Canada’s persistently poor innovation performance.

At the same time, opportunities for adult learning and education to maintain and enhance skills, including workplace training, are limited, declining and of questionable impact.

  • In 2009, only 31 per cent of Canadians aged 25-64 participated in some form of non-formal job related education—slightly higher than the OECD average of 28 per cent, but well behind leading European countries such as Sweden (61 per cent), Norway (47 per cent), Finland (44 per cent), as well as the United States (33 per cent).
  • Canadians received just 49 hours of instruction—lower than the OECD average of 59 hours and less than half the hours (105) provided to adults in Denmark, the leading performer.
  • Canadian employer spending on training and development decreased by nearly 40 per cent from 1993 to 2010.

The apprenticeship and skilled trades sector of the PSE sector is also critical. Participation in the apprenticeship system has increased markedly over the past 20 years and more apprentices are completing their training, achieving certification, and reaping the benefits. Yet, completion rates remain a challenge and it is not clear that Canada’s apprenticeship systems have achieved the right scope of occupational coverage.

The report concludes that further attention to actual skills attainment is needed in order for the PSE sector to sustain and enhance its performance as drivers of economic growth and societal well-being.

This and two additional foundational reports for the Centre for Skills and Post-Secondary Education will help shape the objectives and actions of an eventual pan Canadian education strategy and help feed the dialogue at the 2nd Annual Skills and Post-Secondary Education Summit, to be held in Toronto from November 5–6. The Summit will also feature national and international speakers including His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada.

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