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Necessary, but Insufficient: STEM Skills for Innovation

May 05, 2015
Daniel Munro
Principal Research Associate
Public Policy

Is Canada’s weak innovation performance a result of having too few people with advanced skills in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)? Many policy-makers, business leaders, and others seem to think so, and, at least in theory, the view makes sense. Innovation and productivity improvements often emerge from new technologies whose development, adoption, and effective use require one or more STEM capabilities.

On the Conference Board’s Report Card on Education, Canada earns a “C” grade and ranks 12th of 16 countries in terms of the proportion of graduates from STEM fields produced annually, while on the Innovation Report Card, Canada earns a “D” and ranks 13th. Although we have many graduates in life sciences, we are especially weak in engineering and computer sciences. And while immigrants are a key source of STEM skills—holding 51 per cent of all STEM credentials in Canada despite constituting only a quarter of the adult population—poor credential recognition means that too few are employed in positions that use their STEM skills.1 On a first cut, then, it is plausible to think that weak STEM skills may be impairing Canada’s innovation performance.

In a recent report, however, an expert panel convened by the Council of Canadian Academies takes some wind out of the sails of the view that a STEM skills deficit is to blame for weak innovation performance. In its report Some Assembly Required: STEM Skills and Canada’s Economic Productivity,the panel, led by David Dodge, reaches a number of important conclusions, three of which have particular relevance to the question of whether STEM skills matter to innovation and whether Canada has enough.

1. No STEM Skills Shortage

After examining employment and unemployment data, wages, and STEM education and occupation matching, the expert panel concludes that “there is no evidence of a current imbalance of advanced STEM skills nationally.”2 The two notable exceptions to this are life sciences professionals and engineers (including civil, mechanical, electrical, and chemical).3 And although the report acknowledges that there may be regional and sectoral mismatches, it notes that assessing these mismatches is hampered by limited data. These are important conclusions that many need to hear.

Still, this does not fully answer the question of whether Canada’s weak innovation performance is, at least in part, a result of insufficient STEM skills. A key point to remember about innovation is that it involves creating or doing something new—either new to the world or the firm. A supply and demand analysis can tell us whether there is a shortage, surplus, or balance of STEM skills based on current business activities. But we know that the status quo is one of weak innovation performance. So while the panel’s conclusion entails that Canada has sufficient STEM skills simply to muddle along in the low innovation performance category, it does not tell us whether more and better STEM skills could stimulate more and better innovation. Indeed, the analysis tells us little about which skills researchers and entrepreneurs might draw on as they discover, develop, and implement new products, processes, and services, and those they will draw on to create new science and technology-based businesses.

2. STEM Skills for an Uncertain Future

Recognizing the limits of a static labour market analysis, the panel considered which STEM skills might be needed in the future. It is a difficult question to answer given that changes in technology and increasing automation will “profoundly alter the nature of work”4 and make labour market predictions even more challenging. As such, the panel cautions against investing heavily in specialized practical training given the risks it entails for individuals and society. “Changes in demand for niche skills over time,” they note, “may result in obsolete or undervalued skills, and deep investments in one area come at the cost of not investing in other skills.”5

To prepare for an uncertain future, the panel recommends investing in fundamental STEM skills—such as reasoning, mathematics, and computational facility (numeracy); critical thinking and problem solving; and the ability to apply these skills in technology-rich environments.6 Not only do such skills ensure that all citizens have a measure of STEM literacy, they also provide a foundation for some individuals to pursue higher-level, advanced STEM skills development opportunities in the post-secondary institutions and the workplace. In short, fundamental STEM skills “equip individuals with essential tools that are required to adjust to change, which is [of] benefit considering future labour market uncertainties.”7

3. STEM Skills Necessary but Not Sufficient for Innovation

Finally, the panel offers a good reminder that while we (and they) believe STEM skills are important to innovation, the evidence to support the belief is limited. While existing evidence is consistent with the belief, the panel notes that the story of skills that contribute to innovation is much richer. As they write, “STEM skills are necessary but not sufficient for innovation and productivity growth.”8

The panel emphasizes that there are many different kinds of, and dimensions to, innovation, all of which draw on a range of STEM and non-STEM skills. For every technological development, there are design and marketing requirements that can make or break market success. For companies with portfolios of product and process innovations under way, there is a need for management skills and expertise to assist with decisions about resource allocation, prioritization, and timing. Moreover, as the panel notes, “complementary skills, such as communication, teamwork, and leadership, are also important in and of themselves, as well as to maximize the impact of STEM skills.”9

One key take-away from the report, then, is that while efforts should be made to ensure that future employees and entrepreneurs have fundamental STEM skills, we also need to educate and train people to develop skills and knowledge in, and an understanding of, the arts and humanities, social sciences, management, and other fields. The development of innovative technologies requires STEM skills. But, ultimately, technology is for human use and thus requires a clear understanding of what it means to be, and to behave as, a human being.

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1    Statistics Canada, Education Indicators in Canada: An International Perspective (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2014), 15.

2    Expert Panel on STEM Skills for the Future, Some Assembly Required: STEM Skills and Canada’s Economic Productivity (Ottawa: Council of Canadian Academies, 2015), xiv, 33.

3    Ibid., 67.

4    Ibid., 61.

5    Ibid., xv.

6    Ibid., 6.

7    Ibid., xiii.

8    Ibid., xv.

9    Ibid., xv.

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