Thank you, Madam Chair.
It is a great pleasure for me to appear before your committee today on a topic that is so important to the future of Canada.
GE has been established in Canada for over a hundred years. In this country we have over 7,000 employees in businesses that include oil and gas, equipment for power generation and transmission, health care, transportation, and lighting. We operate over ten manufacturing facilities. You may know that GE Capital is one of Canada’s largest non-bank financial institutions.
Across Canada we invest heavily in technology development. Here in Canada and around the world, we employ engineers, computer scientists, medical technicians, and many highly skilled workers and trades. When we look at Canada, we see not only its vast natural resources but the skills of its people. We can be proud of our education system, which according to the OECD PISA report—the program for international student assessment—ranks among the best in the world.
But one of my greatest concerns is the looming skills shortage in Canada. We have remarkable opportunities before us as a nation. Canadians are privileged to live in a country with a bounty of resources that the world needs. But our economy and our social fabric is at risk if we cannot educate and train the people here in Canada that industry needs. While immigration will certainly help, it will not solve the skill shortages we will be facing.
So what has to be done? We certainly need to graduate more students with advanced degrees in science, engineering, and applied technology. We need to encourage young people to also consider the skilled trades. One of the easiest ways to do this is staring us in the face. We need to encourage more girls to go into these disciplines as well as to learn skilled trades. Unfortunately, girls are under-represented in science and technology programs in secondary and post-secondary schools. As the committee knows from its previous work, the supply pipeline for university graduates in science and engineering or for technical colleges often begins early in the elementary school, when children are exposed to and form their opinions about mathematics, science, and about people who might work in manufacturing jobs.
According to the report Women In Science and Engineering in Canada, produced by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada in 2010, the odds of a female child enrolled in first grade going on to receive a PhD in the sciences or engineering are approximately one in 286. The odds for a boy are one in 167. Today, in an average-sized Canadian elementary school, only one child will go on to receive that PhD, and it is likely to be a boy. By secondary school, girls report lower levels of confidence in their ability to solve specific mathematical problems, lower levels of their perceived ability to learn mathematics, and higher levels of anxiety in dealing with mathematics. Girls were also less likely to believe that mathematics will be useful for their future employment and education and they were also more likely to report lower levels of interest and enjoyment in mathematics.
Science and engineering disciplines rank near the bottom as a discipline of choice for women as compared to men. While women outnumber men in most non-science disciplines at university, the ratio drops off dramatically for the major science-based disciplines, and it is only above men by 1% for the life sciences. In any technical colleges, the representation of young women learning skills is actually no better.
I would like to make three recommendations on how to address the gender gap specifically in an area I think is very important to our country and our country's future, which is sciences, engineering, and the trades. The first recommendation is to build more partnerships between industry and schools. Industry needs to do more to build partnerships with schools so that girls can better understand how studying science, engineering, and trades will lead to higher-paying jobs. One way of doing this is through collaborative alliances so that girls know about the many ways in which scientific work improves our well-being here in Canada and globally.
For several years now GE has helped to fund Actua, a national science education outreach organization. Their science, engineering, and technology education outreach, programmed for Canadian youth, including their national girls program, has been a terrific association for us and for what they do.
We have seen first-hand the benefits of working with girls at a young age. We know from our own employees’ direct experiences as mentors to these girls that given the opportunity to thrive in a positive, supportive environment, such as what Actua has designed, girls will rise to the challenge.
Few girls actually have the opportunity to meet with female scientists and engineers in industry who demystify their work, make their career choices accessible to girls, and inspire them to stay in school and learn. Actua is making excellent progress in changing this. We strongly recommend that the federal government consider ways to support programs such as those offered by Actua, which will inspire girls to achieve their full potential in science and technology.
We in business, of course, need to show girls what the opportunities are for skilled trades people in our plants, factories, and businesses. GE plants, producing aircraft engine parts, water treatment equipment, and smart grids all right here in Canada, are among the most modern in the world. These facilities have robotics and computerized machinery. They're creating a different environment and skill set from our old-fashioned views of what these industries used to look like.
Why shouldn’t girls consider a career in sciences, engineering, or skilled trades? They need to know what these contemporary opportunities look and feel like, and the opportunities they hold.
Another recommendation is around remote communities. In January 2011 we launched a partnership with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce to focus on Canada’s remote communities through a business lens. As the committee knows, remote communities are on the front line of resource development, but frequently the people living in remote communities cannot participate in this development for want of skills, training, and basic infrastructure.
Through 11 cross-country round tables and an online survey, we heard from over 500 business stakeholders. Issues raised by business operators in remote communities included current and future skills shortages. It was noted that along with a shortage of labour there is also a significant high school drop-out rate. For instance, in Nunavut barely 25% of youth actually graduate high school.
Over the next decade, 400,000 aboriginal Canadians will reach working age. It is imperative to improve graduation rates to help Canada develop a highly skilled home-grown workforce. Special attention must be paid to the graduation rates of girls and also their advancement in science, technology, math, and the trades.
We support the recommendation made by a number of organizations for the federal government funding for first nations schools to be equal to that of provincial funding levels. Mentorships with business where girls can connect with women in science and technology are also beneficial during high school.
Additionally, girls in remote communities who want to pursue post-secondary education must often leave home to do so. This can be costly and stressful, a big disincentive. Supporting community and post-secondary programs that support girls in their transition away from home, including provisions for child care, we believe is well recommended.
In closing, my third recommendation is building a national science strategy that targets science education in the crucial K through 12 years. There is a great deal of skepticism about the usefulness of developing sometimes national strategies for every problem Canada is facing. I am aware that too often strategies are little more than pious hopes, but the current federal science and technology strategy is a very good start. It has useful recommendations on how business and government-funded research institutions can better collaborate to drive innovation in our economy and workforce. Part of the strategy is to create a culture of science and technology in Canada.
As a country we can do more to encourage children, and especially girls, to study science and math in the crucial K through 12 years. The provinces will have a lead role here, but federal support for post-secondary education can also help out. For example, we should improve the linkages between universities and technical schools and high schools.