Polytechnics Delivering Talent For The Aerospace Sector

By Daniel Komesch

Aerospace is an integral and strategic sector for Canada. Not only does it add high-value jobs, innovation intensity – with beneficial spill-over effects – and billions in GDP to our economy, it’s also key to protecting our borders, surveilling the North, putting Canadians in space, and potentially, delivering COVID-19 testing kits via unmanned aerial vehicles to remote regions of the country.

Canada needs a strong aerospace sector and aerospace needs Canadian talent.

Canada’s polytechnics are key partners in the delivery of a skilled talent pipeline for the aerospace sector. Institutions that focus on applied learning like the British Columbia Institute for Technology, Saskatchewan Polytechnic and Seneca College produce people across the whole value chain – innovation enabled talent performing R&D, skilled tradespeople manufacturing and repairing parts, technicians and technologists improving and maintaining aircrafts, pilots and sales and marketing specialists, among others.

There are, however, challenges recruiting talent through much of the aerospace supply chain. To ensure Canada’s aerospace sector continues to thrive, what can we do?

First, we need to better promote the skilled trades as viable career options.

One of the most significant talent shortages we are facing in Canada generally, but in aerospace specifically, are skilled tradespeople. Part of this challenge relates to perceptions. In Canada, the skilled trades are often viewed as back-up, rather than backbone careers, and young people are encouraged to pursue other routes, which is why many never try the trades until later in life.

The average age of newly registering apprentices is 27 for men and 28 for women. To create an efficient talent pipeline for the aerospace sector, career navigation is key and part of getting the right people to the right jobs is changing perceptions.

It’s time for Canadians to recognize that there is plenty of space for our best and brightest on the shop floor and to encourage our young talent to take on a vocational education.

Second, we need to enable more young people to participate in work-integrated learning.

Co-ops, internships, apprenticeships and the like provide young people with real world experience in the sector, allowing them to enter the workforce and hit the ground running – or, perhaps, take to the air flying — and are necessary to creating a more efficient talent pipeline.

However, work-integrated learning opportunities aren’t as widely available across the sector as they could be. Challenges include low employer awareness about how to bring students onboard and the supports that are available to them, as well as the difficulty of aligning work terms with academic calendars.

The federal government has made significant investments in work-integrated learning recently and through investments from the federal government, the Business Higher Education Roundtable has signed an agreement with the Canadian Mobility and Aerospace Institute to create 7,500 new work-integrated learning placements. We need more of this.

Third, we need to make stronger investments in innovation. When we invest in innovation, and especially that which involves both employers and post-secondary institutions, we get a double win: innovation gains and student talent that is equipped with next-generation skills to take to industry.

All polytechnics are deeply involved in delivering innovation services to industry, and several in Canada are home to specialized facilities that aid the aerospace sector with their innovation goals and involve students in the process. For example, at Red River College in Winnipeg, the Technology Access Centre for Aerospace & Manufacturing works with partners like Boeing to test and demonstrate new processes and leverage advanced manufacturing expertise to address technological problems.

For the students lucky enough to be working on projects for the likes of Boeing, guess who comes knocking once they have completed their program?

Unfortunately, in Canada, this type of demand-driven research suffers from woeful underinvestment. Less than 3% of all federal research dollars are directed at applied research.

Directing more government dollars at applied research is not only good for innovation and productivity, it also ensures we have a healthy supply of talent, enabled with the most up-to-date skills and knowledge at the fingertips of Canada’s aerospace sector.

We are facing turbulence across most sectors in Canada today, but with the help of polytechnics, better promotion of the skilled trades and work-integrated learning, and smarter federal investments in innovation, Canada’s aerospace sector will have no problems taking off once again.

Daniel Komesch is the Director of Policy at Polytechnics Canada.

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