The youth unemployment problem needs more than R&D

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Youth-unemp-picBy Denzil Doyle 

Judging by the amount of student unrest that occurred last year, ostensibly focused on high tuition fees, our politicians at all three levels of government would be wise to brace for more of the same in the coming academic year.

The first thing they should do is get a better understanding of what is bothering our youth, because a little bit of investigation would reveal that tuition fees are relatively low on their totem pole of unrest. We must understand that young people are better educated than they have ever been in the past, that they are entering the workforce with unprecedented debt, and the job opportunities are nothing like they were for previous generations. The mismatch is more pronounced in the manufacturing sector and it is due mainly to the complete absence of some of the more innovative components of that sector. For example, we assemble automobiles in Canada but we do not design them here and we have very little involvement in the more strategic activities like product design and product migration.

Where it makes sense for Canada to innovate

The best that our policy makers seem to be able to do about it is scold our manufacturers for not doing enough R&D. They don’t seem to understand that over the years, Canada has built a truncated manufacturing industry that does not need much R&D. That will not change overnight but they should at least learn what not to pursue – windmills and solar panels, for example. These products will be made elsewhere, no matter what incentives are offered. On the other hand, a few strategic initiatives in pipeline control systems may be worth pursuing. Instead, we have politicians going to Washington to tell the Americans that we should not build pipelines at all – it is a bad business. What our politicians don’t seem to understand is that pipeline control systems are more likely to be made by young people rather than by 50-year-olds.

The challenge to Canada is to re-jig its economy so that it needs more R&D, but setting R&D goals is a foolish exercise because we never meet them and after a while neither industry nor government take them seriously.

Setting R&D targets is not the answer

A better metric would be our share of world trade in technology-intensive products and services. Our trade associations could assist governments in setting those goals and measuring our progress against them. For example, those associations and government departments that are engaged in any way in the use of petroleum for making products other than fuels have an opportunity to advise the government on what those products are; those products should dictate what R&D we do in order to gain world market share. Such policy making is absolutely essential at this point in time because it is obvious that this is where the action is going to be in the future. In the process, they are going to find that there are a lot of other things missing besides R&D.

As for what our young people can do to help themselves, they can form an alliance that would guarantee at least a 90 percent voter turnout at the next federal, provincial, and municipal elections. Such an alliance could forbid anyone from taking part in a public demonstration unless they have a card proving that they voted in the most recent applicable election in their area.

The alliance would also participate in the selection of political candidates. Hopefully, they would disqualify those who come up with simplistic solutions like more R&D or more foreign investment. In the end, if we want to fix the youth unemployment problem, we have to retrofit our whole economy and raise our sights beyond R&D.

Denzil Doyle’s involvement in Ottawa’s high technology industry goes back to the early 1960s when he established a sales office for Digital Equipment Corporation, a Boston-based firm that had just developed the world’s first minicomputer. The Canadian operation quickly evolved into a multi-faceted subsidiary. When he left the company in 1981, Canadian sales exceeded $160 million and its employment exceeded 1,500. In his next career, Doyle built a consulting and investment company, Doyletech Corporation, that not only helped emerging companies, but built companies of its own. In recognition of his contributions to Canada’s high technology industry, he was awarded an honourary Doctorate of Engineering by Carleton University in 1981 and a membership in the Order of Canada in 1995.

Image: Financial Times

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