Preparing our Young Generation for Canada’s Asia Challenge

Recent warnings from Malaysian oil and gas giant, Petronas, and the BC LNG alliance about the closing window of opportunity to competitively serve Asian markets should serve as a wake-up call for Canada. But maybe not for the reasons you think. 

We have seen much discussion of Canada being in danger of losing it’s competitive edge in Asia due to an inability to get the hard infrastructure in place. Regulatory delays and domestic politics are often blamed. Given what is at stake for our economy and our global relevance, we can no longer get by on a superficial and out-of-date understanding of Asia and its major players. To be fair, over the last few years, we’ve seen solid and credible efforts by government and industry to bolster Canada’s hardware: from attracting investments for oil and gas projects, expanding technological cooperation, and improving Canada’s Asia Pacific transportation corridor. With a few notable exceptions, less attention has been paid to building Canada’s soft infrastructure - the knowledge, skills and competencies needed to help Canadians engage with Asia. Canada’s record lags behind its competitors when it comes to investing in education and training that will help our Canada’s next generation succeed in Asia. 

Given what is at stake for our economy and our global relevance, we can no longer get by on a superficial and out-of-date understanding of Asia and its major players. The implications will be strongest for next-generation Canadians, whose competitiveness will depend on their ability to be confident and successful engaging with the countries, companies, and peoples in this very dynamic and consequential region.

Last week, the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada hosted an international conference in Calgary on ‘Canada’s Asia Challenge’ that brought together stakeholders from business, education and government to discuss what can be done to strengthen Canadians’ Asia skills and knowledge. In many ways, Alberta has been a leader in nurturing Canada’s next generation with Asia-ready knowledge and skills. The Alberta Abroad Program for young professionals sets a gold standard by providing young people with hands on training in Asian organizations.  However, a more comprehensive national effort is required if all Canadians are to benefit. 

By and large, Canada’s education curriculum still focuses on teaching about the relationships that mattered to our past, while doing far less to teach about the relationships that will matter to our future. In contrast, Australia and the U.S. have gotten the message and taken action. In 2008, Australian schools began implementing a cross-curriculum priority on “Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia.” And in the U.S., the 100,000 Strong Foundation, launched with the explicit goal of helping to improve US-China relations, announced in July that it had reached its goal of getting 100,000 young Americans studying in China over a four-year period.

Moreover, in the past, Asians’ inability to speak English – and our inability to speak Asian languages – was seen as their problem. This is now becoming our problem. Yes, English is an international language, and yes, thousands of Asian students come to Canada every year to complete their degrees in English. But those students will graduate fluent in English or French and a strategically important Asian language. 

Last month, New Zealand, a country with roughly the population of British Columbia, announced NZD$10 million (about C$9 million) of additional funding over the next five years to strengthen the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean language skills of its young people. So we have to ask, in an ever globalizing job market, how will young Canadians hold up without these skills in which so many others are investing?

Businesses have a key role in supporting the knowledge development and skills training needed to help Canada’s workforce become more competitive. If there is hope for Canada to gain and sustain a competitive foothold in Asia, more strategic action and investments are needed to build Canada’s soft infrastructure.  A recent survey by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada found that employers increasingly value candidates with Asia competence, but they are having a hard time finding Canadians with the right set of knowledge and expertise of Asia. The skills and knowledge mismatch needs to be addressed. In Australia, the taskforce for an Asia Capable Workforce, an effort led by its business and higher education sectors, released a report identifying 11 specific “Asia capabilities” that would benefit the Australian economy. Could we learn from this process to get Canadian companies ahead of that curve? 

If there is hope for Canada to gain and sustain a competitive foothold in Asia, more strategic action and investments are needed to build Canada’s soft infrastructure. The good news is that we have the talent and creativity in our country to lead this change—now we just need to build the collective will to do so. Our next generation is depending on us to meet this challenge. 

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