A bright future in advanced manufacturing

By: George Burton






George Burton, Canadore College president.

So let’s start with a little good news. The advanced manufacturing sector is starved for skilled people.

By investing in people we can ensure that Ontario has the skilled labour force it requires for economic growth. People are looking for the qualifications and technical skills that result in meaningful employment, and employers are looking for these very people. This is where colleges can help. Ontario’s colleges excel at providing students with career training and hands-on experience.

The not so good news is that we have a limited window to satisfy this need before market forces move these opportunities to other jurisdictions. Today’s headlines are brimming with topics about falling oil prices, stubbornly static unemployment rates and global economic gloom. We are left to wonder, is there hope to regain the ground we seem to be losing?

Absolutely, there is. We just need to recognize that we need to quickly shift gears and rethink how we achieve the endgame of meaningful jobs amidst changing players and evolving shifts of global wealth and decision-making.

Statistics show that our provincial and national economies are on a modest upswing from a long and hard recession. But with this recovery is a sobering reality of economic growth projections pegged at very modest levels. Business confidence and the fortitude for risk remain tempered. And, when you consider that legions of baby boomers are set to retire and leave a gaping hole in the skilled workplace, we’re headed for a perfect storm.

In Canada, the manufacturing sector employs almost 2 million people, 800,000 of whom reside right here in Ontario. This industry is critical to Canadian prosperity, which has been in a state of flux since the initial tsunami of off-shoring many traditional manufacturing jobs.

Since that first wave, we have seen some limited repatriation of industries to our shores, but this is the minority. The vast majority of the manufacturing sector has been left to morph itself into lean operations, automation and applying creativity to make new products and processes. Putting innovation to work is a great thing. Whereas many other industries are reporting reduced employment, Ontario’s manufacturing sector added nearly 12,000 jobs last November alone.

Despite these gains, the advanced manufacturing sector remains hungry for skilled labour and we are nowhere near seeing the full potential of what this industry can deliver. There is a significant gap when it comes to finding qualified workers for these jobs, and yet employers are willing to pay. Sector employees earn higher-than-average salaries and secure superior benefits. Not only do they retain their jobs in greater measure compared to their peers, but they are also happier with their career choice.

So why are so many young people having a hard time finding meaningful work? It is partly due to the fact that our overarching economy continues to evolve, and the new norm may actually be a constant churn, but the main issue is the skills mismatch between what employers require what individuals possess.

Now for a little more good news, young people are increasingly looking for the qualifications, professional and technical skills that lead to meaningful employment. So the future is looking brighter, provided we can meet the needs of employers and young people. To be blunt, Ontario needs more college graduates.

Government needs to focus its attention on creating the conditions that foster creativity, innovation and adaptability. The key to success for Ontario is in creating the right conditions, not managing the conditions.

The move to shaping this environment is not to suggest that we abandon structure, discipline and accountability - quite the contrary. The creative, innovative and adaptive processes are the opposite of what many would expect. They are disciplined and focused, and they require the full leveraging of existing resources, and not just in the way we are accustomed. We should embrace the opportunities of this new dynamic and permit colleges to reach their full potential.

However, the stark reality on the training side is not so bright. Compounding our economic challenges is the fact that Ontario colleges continue to receive the lowest per-student funding from both grants and tuition revenues out of any province in Canada. Colleges also receive less from these grants and tuition revenues than the amounts provided to universities and high schools. In real terms, the per-student college operating grants provided today are 16 per cent lower than they were seven years ago. So how can colleges invest to meet the need for skilled workers against this backdrop?

We need the funding for education in the province to be more equitable for the good of all Ontario. We need to encourage and facilitate more robust research partnerships between colleges and businesses to be more competitive. This will lead to the creation of new jobs, especially for smaller companies that don’t have the resources to invest in research and development. We need government to introduce new measures to bolster increased investment by the private sector into college laboratories and shops to support applied research and the skill development of our students – the employees of the future.

It’s time to shift our attitudes. We’re talking about using cutting-edge technology to transform innovation into reality. Opportunities exist in energy, aerospace, engineering, consumer goods industries and more.

Our economy is changing, and so too must we change the way we support it. We can make our mark in the competitive global landscape by investing in advanced manufacturing. I hope you will join me in this leap of faith.


For more information on Hamilton advanced manufacturing training programs check out the ESTATE program

AuthorLorenzo Somma