Being Explicit about Skills will Help Solve Canada’s Productivity Problem

Being Explicit About Skills Will Help Solve Canada’s Productivity Problem 

Robert Luke, CEO, eCampusOntario

Concerns over Canada’s low productivity have grown louder with many writers positing paths to improved productivity and innovation performance. Canada has lagged other advanced economies for decades. To fix this long-standing problem we need to simplify the discussion. The root cause of our productivity challenges can be traced to how we teach–and learn–new skills. It’s convocation season: do new graduates know what skills they have learned in their programs? Do employers know how to make use of these skills? Making tacit knowledge explicit will help new graduates–and their employers–improve Canadian productivity.  

The Three-Legged Stool of Productivity: Investment not a Cost 

One challenge with the productivity discussion is that it is opaque. It seems possible that most business owners, if they think about productivity at all, have only a vague notion of what it means to their bottom lines. We need to reframe the issue in ways that are meaningful.  

To simplify things, imagine productivity as a three-legged stool. The three legs represent Canada’s investments in: 

  • Research and Development (R&D); 
  • New equipment/technology; and 
  • Education and Training. 

Canadian firms under-invest in all three compared to international averages. Canada has a short stool, but other countries (and their firms) have a highchair. Raising the legs of our stool will help us compete internationally. The most important leg of the stool? Education and training. Firms cannot effectively perform R&D or adopt new technology without properly trained people.  

Think about AI: its use depends on the three legs of the stool. AI is both a subject and a product of R&D. It is also a new technology that we need to adopt at scale in the economy. Figuring out how to leverage new technology like AI requires education and training. Skills in product design, project management, and presentations, alongside the human skill of adaptability, are at the heart of successful R&D. These same skills underlie the ability to integrate new technologies into workplaces. 

Teaching these skills is imperative. Upskilling the workforce through targeted education and training will support businesses to investigate new technologies, create products and services and uncover innovations in sales and marketing to help Canadian companies compete. 

Skills are at the Root of Productivity 

Even more important is ensuring learners recognize when they practice and acquire these skills. This means being explicit about the specific skills people gain from any program or curricula. Some programs already do this; colleges in particular are good at ensuring program outcomes are clearly stated. But exit outcomes from an undergraduate program are entry level in the field of study. This means employers need to invest to ensure employees continue to develop their skills in situ

When learners are clear about the skills they have acquired they are better able to quickly put these into action. Transforming tacit knowledge about acquired skills into explicit awareness helps career entrants make better use of the skills they’ve gained. It will help them put these skills to use more effectively, and more rapidly. Skills are at the root of productivity. Ensuring graduates can more rapidly enact the skills and competencies they have learned is central to solving our productivity problems. 

Supporting Risk-Taking, Innovation and Entrepreneurship with Private+Public Partnerships 

Canada’s Indigenous institutes, colleges and universities are teaching our next generation of skilled citizens. These institutions have access to cutting edge equipment and can make this available to companies. Businesses that partner with postsecondary institutions gain access to new technology, and to those who learn with it. Research partnerships–across the spectrum from basic and applied research to experimental development–let businesses take calculated risks, and learn by doing with students and professors who are doing exactly the same thing. 

Business-higher education partnerships help foster a culture of supported risk-taking, innovation and entrepreneurship. These partnerships create incentives for collaboration and commercialization; they support the growth and scaling of Canadian firms. When students engage in research partnerships through work integrated learning they gain crucial innovation literacy, while helping businesses to grow and thrive. From intrapreneurship to entrepreneurship, the skills for innovation are best gained in an applied context. These students graduate and become job takers and job makers.  

From Digital Transformation to Derisking Innovation 

eCampusOntario helps our members embrace Digital Transformation to meet the challenges of education in the 21st century. Our AI-driven micro-credentials and R&D partnership platforms enable Indigenous institutes, colleges and universities to help employers derisk all three legs of the stool. Learn more at

Canada has strengths and opportunities in emerging sectors, such as artificial intelligence, biotechnology, quantum computing, and clean energy. These sectors have the potential to create jobs, solve societal challenges, and drive economic growth.  

We need to be explicit about the skills that will get us there. Doing so will help Canadian firms address longstanding productivity problems and compete more effectively in the global economy. Helping Canadian firms to invest in the three-legged stool of productivity will enhance innovation. 

About eCampusOntario

eCampusOntario is a provincially-funded non-profit organization that leads a consortium of the province’s publicly-funded colleges, universities and indigenous institutes to develop and test online learning tools to advance the use of education technology and digital learning environments.