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Education, not just immigration, key to skill shortage problem: college association

Humber College student surfs the web between classes. March 22, 2010.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Last week, university presidents descended on Parliament Hill to discuss Canada's innovation agenda with parliamentarians. This week, it's the turn of the 61 principals from colleges, institutes and polytechnics across Canada to discuss the country's advanced skills shortage.

The dual pressures of Canada's demographic deficit and increasing technological sophistication of the workplace means that in a decade, employers won't be able to fill the 1.5 million available jobs with qualified candidates, said James Knight, president and CEO of the Association of Canadian Community Colleges.

"And colleges should be a part of that discussion," Mr. Knight said. "Many university graduates come to colleges after they finish their degrees to get workplace skills."

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In his speech at Davos last month, Prime Minister Harper spoke of the need to prepare for demographic pressures before it reached a crisis point, and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has been working on significant reforms to the immigration system for several months, with an increased emphasis on economic immigrants.

But Mr. Knight cautioned that immigration alone with not solve Canada's skilled labour shortage.

"To meet these challenges, we'll have to engage our marginalized communities and find ways to partner with them … like improving the educational achievements of Aboriginals, disabled, poor immigrants," Mr. Knight said, adding that he has also had a discussion with Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo.

Mr. Knight would also like to see a boost in federal funds for applied research and development invested in postsecondary education that goes towards colleges. As of now, only 1.25 per cent of $2.9-billion in federal money reaches colleges, he said, with the lion's share going to universities and research hospitals. He would like to see the figure climb to five per cent and says he has been getting positive signs from parliamentarians of an oncoming change.

"Is it going to happen in this budget? Well, we've been hearing that if there is any sector that would receive any attention, it would be ours."

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