Walk into most classes at Red River College today and you might be surprised to find the average age of the students is mid-to-late 20s. Ask them what they've been doing since high school and you'd find that many already have a few years of university under their belt. Further, you'd hear they now value hands-on learning and are anxious to get to work.
In those few moments you would clearly see the opportunities and challenges that Manitoba faces over the next decade.
Although we have a growing labour force and an unemployment rate well below the national average, we have a huge issue facing us if we want to grow an economy where our children will want to live, work and raise their families.
To start, we face a critical demographic challenge. A growing number of experienced workers are heading into retirement and there are simply not enough people with the right competencies to replace them. Already, about half of Manitoba businesses say their biggest challenge is finding workers with relevant skills.
We need to solve the mismatch between the skills needed and the skills of available workers -- sometimes described as "people without jobs; jobs without people."
Governments know this. Last week, the Premier's Economic Advisory Council pulled together business, union and education leaders to brainstorm about how to create 75,000 more workers by 2020. On the federal front, the 2013 budget will be tabled soon and is expected to include incentives to attract more people to the trades.
At Red River College, we believe Manitoba's 75,000 goal is attainable with better collaboration among post-secondary education institution as well as improved participation by industry.
For too long, our colleges and universities have been viewed as a hierarchy of learning. At the top, postgraduate universities, followed by universities offering primarily undergrad degrees, followed by colleges, followed by purely technical schools. It was often accepted that the brightest students went to university and the rest went to technical schools or college. This hierarchy devalues technical programs, college degrees and diplomas, apprenticeship training and trades in favour of university programs.
RRC students will quickly tell you that is old-school thinking.
Members of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business say they favour college graduates over university graduates by a ratio of six to one. It's perhaps not surprising, then, that 96 per cent of RRC graduates walk out the doors (with their degree, diploma or certificate) and into relevant jobs. Or that close to 30 per cent of RRC's students have already been to university. Many RRC graduates are defying stereotypes by showing that a university degree is not the only path to a meaningful career or a good income.
To address the skills shortage, we need to rethink our view of post-secondary institutions and recognize that applied learning and technical training is a deliberate choice -- not a second or third choice or a fallback position. Many young people have already figured that out, but have our educational institutions?
The post-secondary system should be a well-articulated network of valued educational choices. Such a system would foster collaboration among institutions, allow students to transfer more easily among institutions, clarify the differences and similarities among institutions and help students make more informed decisions to start down the right career path sooner,
To ensure people have the right skills, we need to strengthen partnerships with business and industry. Red River College is not unique in working with business leaders and sector councils to ensure its training programs meet labour demands, but it does provide good examples of doing this very well.
The college has developed applied research partnerships with companies such as Standard Aero, Magellan Aerospace, Manitoba Hydro, New Flyer and Motor Coach Industries, where the college provides the technology and students conduct research to boost innovation and productivity. Ford, Chrysler and General Motors all have training labs at RRC, our railway-conductor program was developed with input from all the major rail companies in Manitoba, and when the construction industry told us about the advanced skills their future leaders will need, the college developed a four-year construction-management degree program.
Companies such as Boeing and Standard Aero refer to Red River College as the "global standard" in advanced learning. We've helped transform the $1.8-billion aviation and aerospace industry, and we are poised to impact many other sectors such as green building, health, environment, transportation and manufacturing.
Because our students are at the centre of applied-research efforts, our graduates hit the ground running with skills that match workplace needs. A supply of highly trained graduates helps business and industry be more innovative and competitive, allowing them to create more jobs and economic prosperity in Manitoba. The result is a win-win for employers and employees.
Overcoming our historical bias favouring university degrees and developing even stronger partnerships with industry are not the only paths to bolstering advanced skills in Manitoba. But they are essential.
Stephanie Forsyth is president
of Red River College.