The head of the federally-funded Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA), Francis MacGuire, met with the Atlantic premiers on Monday. His message: there’s a labour shortage on the East Coast that needs to be addressed. Yes, despite our above-average unemployment rates, there are hundreds of jobs going unfilled.
MacGuire stated that “for 50 years, we’ve been talking about unemployment, and now employers can’t find anyone.” He shared the story of the manager of the Four Points in Madawaska, a community with as many as 600 open job listings, changing sheets on hotel beds because she can’t find anyone who wants the job. He praised the innovation of New Brunswick companies who have turned to automation, allowing machines to cut tree saplings and seal potato chip bags. He called on the premiers to help local businesses finance these solutions.
The leaders were quick to talk of up-skilling, harmonizing apprentice programs, reducing red tape, and understanding that this is a complex issue. Premier Gallant’s official response to MacGuire was that the province needs to focus on workforce development. I’d suggest that part of a workforce development strategy to address this disconnect includes how we speak to our children about preparing for the job market.
I’d argue that, for the last 50 years and more, we’ve taught ourselves to pursue a singular career, rather than focusing on cultivating the fundamental learning objectives that allow a person to be responsive to changes in the marketplace.
When I was in high school, it was all about teaching and tech. Take sciences, get a Bachelor of Education, and you’ll be all set. Well, that’s not how it’s worked out. The tech bubble burst. The baby boomers stuck around. The number of trained teachers far exceeded the demand. Friend after friend found themselves with large student loans and sparse full-time work. Underemployment and outmigration became part of our daily vocabulary.
There are certainly complex issues at play. But we are undoubtedly setting ourselves up for failure when we focus intently on a skill set tied to a specific industry without also encouraging creative thinking about how those skills and personal interests can be applied to other areas of employment. When that one industry or one skill is suddenly unavailable, we need to know how to pivot ourselves toward the next opportunity.
I believe the framework for this exists in the current education plan in New Brunswick. The same building blocks of growth mindset and resiliency that are being introduced into the elementary curriculum can help prepare our children for future industry shifts. Imagine you’re taught, day after day, year after year, that there is always more than one way to approach a challenge, and that you can overcome any adversity and learn from it. Imagine that you’re taught that your voice matters to this province, and to have confidence in your decision-making skills. Then if the career you pursued suddenly becomes obsolete or overcrowded, if your workforce suddenly disappears, you can rely on your ability to be resilient and creative in finding a solution.
We don’t have crystal balls and psychic powers. We don’t know for sure what changes are going to happen to impact our economy and our industries in the future. But we have enough collective intelligence to make better predictions and to better prepare ourselves for a culture of continuous change.
Our industries shift much quicker than in the past. We can’t just focus on the current opportunities and encourage our youth to prepare for jobs in sectors facing shortages now. We need to be teaching our children versatility and resilience, so that they can shift with the trends.