Shortage of science grads poses an impending innovation problem for Canada

Not enough PhDs and STEM graduates could lead to creativity shortfall

The products of Canadian ingenuity span the ages, from Bell’s telephone to BlackBerry’s. But Canada could soon face an innovation deficit, because the country has a relatively low number of science graduates, according to the Conference Board of Canada.

The Board’s Education Provincial Rankings give Canada a depressing ‘D’ in the categories of PhD and science, math, computer science and engineering graduates per 100,000 population aged 20–39. International students are another shortcoming, warranting a ‘C’ grade that echoes recent concerns from the Canadian International Council.

Table showing Conference Board of Canada's provincial education report card

PhD graduates and those in the STEM (science, technology, mathematics and engineering) fields are key drivers of a country’s creative output, and many of Canada’s best jobs require an education in the applied sciences. The report suggests Canada’s shortcomings in these areas could pose an innovation problem:

Doctorate holders in the private sector (an estimated 20 to 30 per cent of doctoral holders join academia) make significant contributions to society and the economy through their research and innovation capacity. Yet, compared with firms in the U.S., Canadian firms in most industries hire fewer PhD graduates and pay them less. This failure to take full advantage of the capacity of PhD graduates to innovate is a management issue.

“Borrowing” an idea or two from the competition has helped some of Canada’s fastest-growing firms flourish. But corporate creativity is crucial to growth and long-term sustainability, and the failure to stay ahead of the curve can spell trouble—just ask BlackBerry. It’s important to encourage innovative young minds, says Jordan Banks of Facebook Canada:

“Identification of talent early on is critical. Look at STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)—if we focused on finding early indicators of high performers in our education system, then treated them differently as they progressed through school as potential Canadian innovators, by the time they got to Grade 12 and were thinking about university, they would be wildly ahead of the innovation curve.”

It’s not all bad news—the report card gives Canada a “B” grade overall—behind only Japan and Finland in the Conference Board’s comparative rankings. While PISA scores are declining, Canada’s K-12 education system still ranks highly compared to its developed-nation peers.

But companies hoping to add a chief innovation officer to their C-Suite roster might have a harder time finding a qualified candidate if the ranks of Canada’s private-sector PhDs and STEM grads aren’t replenished soon.