Work-placement program should be expanded to college, polytechnic students: advocates

Originally published in the Globe and Mail

SIMONA CHIOSE

A federal plan to fund 10,000 short work and research placements should not be restricted to graduate students, but should be expanded to include college and polytechnic students whose more practical skills are in demand by industry, advocates say.

The Liberal government announced in this spring's federal budget that it would fund the 10,000 spots with a $221-million grant over five years to Mitacs, a non-profit group that co-ordinates partnerships between industry and universities. Mitacs has been running work-integrated programs for more than a decade, but only graduate students are eligible to participate. But colleges and polytechnics have lobbied for their students to be included, an effort Mitacs has supported.

Widening participation would help college students launch their careers and give small and medium-sized business access to the type of skills they need, colleges say.

"The people being trained in colleges are on the front lines of doing research and development in companies large and small," said Christine Trauttmansdorff, vice-president of government relations at Colleges and Institutes Canada. "To make those work-integrated opportunities only available to PhDs and postdocs does not jibe with an inclusive innovation agenda."

CIC and Polytechnics Canada sent a three-page letter to Navdeep Bains, the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, and Finance Minister Bill Morneau in late May. Federal support for research training and innovation is out of balance, the letter argued.

Most "of the federal funding for talent has been targeted to training tens of thousands of people to obtain masters, doctorates and post-doctorates, all of which produces world-class research, but is not the only kind of talent required for innovation," the letter, which was obtained by The Globe and Mail, said. "Federal government investments in college and polytechnic innovation talent are also urgently needed to translate ideas into outcomes."

The groups released a similar open letter to all members of Parliament and senators earlier this week.

The government is working on a pilot program that would include college students, a spokesperson for the Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development said.

"Our government sees a role for colleges and polytechnics in the expanded program," the department said in response to questions from The Globe and Mail.

Most of the research and development staff at Canadian businesses do not have advanced degrees, multiple national task forces and reports have found. Whether that is holding back innovation in Canada, or suggests that the country is producing too many PhDs for the types of jobs available, has been a topic of debate among policy-makers.

Colleges say that reality simply shows businesses need people with a variety of practical and theoretical skills.

"Governments have not understood that you have to balance discovery research with user-inspired research: A business has a problem, can you help to fix it," said Nobina Robinson, the chief executive of Polytechnics Canada. The college sector receives $50-million to $60-million in federal research funds compared to billions for the three research tri-councils, Ms. Robinson said.

Mitacs supports the effort to expand its program to new student groups and smaller businesses, the group said.

"Our key strategies are to reach more underrepresented groups, to involve students from a greater variety of disciplines, and to connect with small companies across the country," said Alejandro Adem, the group's CEO, in a statement.

The Liberal government is already under pressure to show that it is serious about supporting fundamental science by increasing the budgets of the tri-councils. How much will be left on the table once those decisions are made will become clear over the coming year.