Fixing “Under-Educated Manitoba” could help ensure that Jets, Ikea are here to stay

“Stand with me on the top of the Union Bank building, Winnipeg’s new skyscraper, and take a look at the city. You had best pull your fur cap down over your ears and button your coon-skin coat tightly about you, for the wind is blowing a gale,” a writer named Frank G. Carpenter wrote in the Newark Sunday Call on Jan. 7, 1906.

“The air is nipping, but the sky is bright, and there is so much ozone that we seem to be breathing champagne. Have you ever felt so alive before?”

“Take a look over the city,” he continued. “It stretches out on all sides for miles. The new shingle roofs shine brightly under the Winter sun, and we can almost smell the paint of the suburban additions. Winnipeg is a grower.”

By 1992, the Union Bank Building’s condition seemed to symbolize Winnipeg’s deteriorating outlook. By the time the last tenant moved out of the increasingly decrepit building at the corner of William and Main that year, Calgary had long since displaced Winnipeg as the corporate capital of the prairie provinces, a necessary consequence of energy replacing agriculture, and services replacing manufacturing, as the west’s key job and wealth generators.

Buildings once occupied by regional and national head offices stood largely vacant. The provincial unemployment rate was 9.3 percent. The Jets were threatening to leave town, and would indeed do so four years later. The fading glory of the Eaton’s store on Portage Ave. portended the bankruptcy that followed just a few years later. Even the summer was a stinker, bringing one of the chilliest Julys in living memory, with 13 days of daytime highs of less than 20°C (68°F) — and the month’s warmest day only heating up to 26°C (79°F).

Nearly 20 years later, the city’s outlook is considerably brighter. The year 2011 brought the return of the Jets, construction continued at the strongest pace in decades, and the weather has been unbelievably good. The now-defunct Eaton’s chain will never return, of course, but the imminent arrival of Target and Ikea have many retail junkies excited. The main problem facing the local labour market is not unemployment, but skill shortages.

And, I originally forgot to mention, the Union Bank Building is coming back to life, with Red River College planning to move in.

Though it might feel as if the champagne days have returned, this is not a time to coast along, but rather to prepare as best we can for an unpredictable future.

Statistics Canada’s 2008 economic figures for each province should have sounded an alert that Manitoba’s current prosperity is perhaps a little too dependent on cheap borrowing (thanks, Bank of Canada, for the low interest rates!) and a tight labour market (thanks, Boomers, for retiring!) as opposed to solid long-term fundamentals.

In 2008, Manitoba ranked 10th among the 13 provinces and territories in workforce productivity — that is, the average economic value generated by every work-hour. This is an important measure of a province’s overall economic health, future prospects, and skill at getting the best out of its people.

This seems counter-intuitive, given that Manitobans are not particularly work-shy. In 2008, a larger share of Manitoba’s population was in the workforce than was the case in any part of Canada outside of Alberta and the northern territories. The British, whose press have complained for years about the country’s “long-hours culture”, devoted on average 50 fewer hours to their jobs in 2008 than Manitobans did, while the average American only spent about 20 minutes per day longer on the job.

So relax and enjoy your lunch hour away from your desk, and don’t go in to the office on Saturday if you don’t need to:  it’s not a lack of a work ethic that calls the sustainability of today’s economic optimism into question.

Rather, it’s in Manitoba’s traditionally weak education ethic that you’ll find the problem.

We have one of Canada’s lowest post-secondary attainment rates, which sends the message to businesses across Canada and around the world that “Manitoba” is not synonymous with “quality”, at least as far as the labour force is concerned.

In the 2006 census, we ranked 10th among the 13 provinces and territories in terms of the percentage of 25 to 64 year olds with post-secondary credentials in any form, whether it be a college diploma, university degree or a trades designation.

Only Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Nunavut ranked worse.

If Manitoba had achieved Nova Scotia’s fifth-place ranking — 61% of Nova Scotians aged 25-64 had post-secondary credentials, compared to 54% of Manitobans — prospective investors would have had 37,500 more skilled Manitobans to choose from.

And 37,500 Manitobans would have had a brighter future.

As a community becomes better-educated, the community starts to take on a more winsome image: job growth in the sciences takes off, the city’s arts and cultural community gets larger, more people start living downtown, and public transit use goes up (take note, urbanists).

An October 2011 Statistics Canada study even found evidence that an education ethic improves public health: 25-year old women with university degrees could expect to live four years longer than their friends who never finished high school, while 25-year old men with university degrees could expect a six-year advantage.

But it’s creating more jobs in the sciences, in particular, which could help Manitoba boom — and ensure that the Jets, Ikea and today’s young people will be here to stay.

A strong supply of people with scientific training is what separates the dynamic economies from the rest. It’s why, if you were asked to name Canada’s most successful or appealing cities, you’d likely name the ones with the largest number of science-related jobs as a proportion of the workforce: Ottawa, Calgary, Quebec City, Toronto and Victoria.

Percentage of local workforce in natural/applied sciences occupations (2006 census)

Percentage of local workforce in natural/applied sciences occupations (2006 census)

Science-related jobs can deliver big returns. Among OECD countries — excluding a couple of outliers — every dollar spent on research and development in 2006 was linked to an average of $17 in additional economic activity.

If you could spend $1 and get $17 in benefits from it, would you? Of course you would.

Research and development could be to Manitoba what oil is to Alberta and Newfoundland-Labrador, and what potash is to Saskatchewan.

But it requires easy access to people with professional training in mathematics, computers and information technology, the physical and life sciences, the social and behavioural sciences, and in management and administration.

That’s an area where Manitoba has long fallen short. We’ve traditionally been better at producing high school dropouts than scientists.

That has been changing gradually. Over the past 20 years, recent governments have recognized that the unusually large numbers of Manitobans with low levels of education are holding the province back. They buy less from local businesses, they pay less tax, and they are more likely to become dependent on social services.

Bringing an education ethic back to Manitoba needs to be Job #1 for the next few provincial governments.

This can be done in a couple of ways. One is by continuing the Healthy Child and Career Trek programs aimed at building ambition in young children. Another is by lobbying the federal government to continue allowing Manitoba to take in large numbers of immigrants. As immigrants are more likely to send their children on to post-secondary education than non-immigrants, the current immigration policies bring an excellent hope of achieving cultural change through demographic change.

We need to put as much passion into ensuring that 95 percent of Manitobans born in 2015 will graduate from high school on-time in 2033 — and that 75 percent will have completed some form of post-secondary education by their 25th birthdays in 2040 — as we did into bringing the Jets, Ikea and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights to town.

And we need to embrace the idea that successful cities and provinces are not necessarily defined by the stuff they have, but by how well or how poorly their people are educated.

Because if we don’t have big-city brains, it will be tougher for us to hold on to our big-city toys.

And if we reach these ambitious goals, perhaps someday a foreign correspondent will once again stand atop a Winnipeg skyscraper in the cold winter wind, marvel at how fast the city is growing and how prosperous it looks, and once again proclaim that “Winnipeg is a grower.”

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

5 Responses to Fixing “Under-Educated Manitoba” could help ensure that Jets, Ikea are here to stay

  1. Colin Fast says:

    I think part of the reason for our low PSE attainment can be found by looking at the participation rate in university and college education.

    While the university participation rate in Manitoba is actually slightly higher than the national average (as per the Levin Report), the college participation rate is well below that of most other provinces. In fact, we’d have to add 50% more college students than we have currently just to make it to the national average.

    While people tend to think of the construction trades when talking about college (and make no mistake, we need plenty more of those people too), institutions like RRC also offer plenty of programs in applied science and technology fields, like engineering technology, GIS, programming and aerospace manufacturing.

    Of course the natural tie in with your post is the Union Bank building itself, which will be restored to its former glory when RRC opens it next year as a new home for its culinary and hospitality programs, and as a centre for applied research in food science.

    Colin Fast
    Red River College

  2. theviewfromseven says:

    Good point, Colin: I should have mentioned the restoration. And thanks for your insightful comments.

  3. Jim says:

    You hit the nail on the head and I have often thought this province has to do more to make our province the place to be for R&D . The jobs on the whole are well paying and the side companies and firms that follow are signifacant

  4. bwalzer says:

    I think the more interesting question is; what sort of education should we have? If the government of the day feels that call centres are a way forward then I should be able to go to a local community college and learn how to set up and maintain call centres. I would want the whole thing; networking, switching, CRM, databases, and integration via programming. I would want to be taught by people who have actual call centre design experience.

    I still vividly remember trolling the local university/college libraries back in the 80’s for books on electronic manufacturing. I found very few. The strange thing about that result was that the government of the day was promoting electronic technology as part of a general high tech push. It seemed to me that there was a failure to actually decide exactly what we were supposed to be doing with our electronic knowledge. Eventually you have to break down and do something specific.

  5. Truly this is an epidemic right across Canada, in my opinion. So many trades are loosing numbers to commit to the future needs.

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