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Polytechnics Canada Conference

Polytechnics Canada Conference Offers Insight into Tomorrow's Work

May 22, 2018

The annual Polytechnics Conference, hosted by Sheridan, took place May 15-16 at the Davis Campus in Brampton. The event brought together representatives from member institutions across the country, government, and industry partners of Sheridan, for an agenda focused on the challenges facing our economy, workforce and communities due to the rise of ‘intelligent automation.’ 

In her opening remarks, Dr. Mary Preece, Sheridan’s President and Vice Chancellor, stated that “Sheridan is very proud to be a founding member of Polytechnics Canada. For 15 years, we’ve espoused the hallmarks of all Polytechnics such as offering a wide range of credentials, from apprenticeships to degrees, that are skills-intensive and technology-based; maintaining close ties with industry, so we can directly respond to the needs of employers and projected market trends; and creating structured and supervised opportunities for students to be directly involved in applied research activities, working on real-life problems that are brought forward by industry and community partners.”

Nobina Robinson, CEO of Polytechnics Canada, focused her remarks on the vital contributions to Canada’s talent and research by its leading polytechnics.  “The disruption in work needs to be matched by a disruption in Canada’s higher education logic,” she said.  Nobina noted the outstanding employment rates across all programs offered by polytechnics as a strong indicator of the benefits of employer aligned applied education.

Keynote speakers included The Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science and Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities; Kristin Sharp, Director of New America’s Initiative on Work, Workers and Technology, and co-founder of Shift: The Commission on Work, Workers and Technology, a joint project of New America and Bloomberg; John Stackhouse, Senior Vice President, Office of the CEO at Royal Bank of Canada (RBC); and Dr. Gerard Puccio, Department Chair and Professor at the International Center for Studies in Creativity, Buffalo State University (SUNY) and Distinguished Visiting Professor at Sheridan in Creativity.

Research and Polytechnics

Minister Duncan spoke to the federal government’s recognition of the important work that polytechnics are doing to ”grow a dynamic, creative and highly skilled workforce,” citing as an example, the $140 million committed in the 2018 Federal Budget for the Colleges and Community Innovation Program. She also noted the $3.3 million in federal funding given to Sheridan’s Centre for Mobile Innovation in 2017 to help it generate innovative healthcare solutions through the use of mobile and related technologies; and the $9.9 million provided to Sheridan’s District Energy project through the Postsecondary Institutions Strategic Investment Fund. The funding will allow Sheridan to build on its established district energy expertise and infrastructure by reaching beyond its campus boundaries to partner with municipal and public partners in Brampton and Oakville with the goal of creating community district energy nodes. “Research matters to Canada,” said Minister Duncan. “It contributes to a better society, environment and economy. The work you do to change people’s lives matters and we as a government are enormously grateful.”

The Future of Work

Kristin Sharp outlined some of the key findings from a study on the future of work in the next 10-20 years. Conducted by Shift in the U.S., the study assessed the potential impact of new technologies including automation, AI and robotics, on jobs now and in the future. It brought together thought leaders from the policy and technology sectors to undertake scenario planning. Sharp described the key themes that emerged in the Report of Findings, published in 2017. “All growth opportunities for workers will require them to be more self-directed. We're moving to a world where ... you will use your own skills to create the kind of work you want to do.”

She noted that the educational system is not organized to match skills and workers for this new reality, yet workers crave economic stability. While traditional jobs “provided continuity and continued relevance of skills,” workers’ future success will be directly tied to lifelong learning. “The education system has to think more innovatively about how it provides continuous learning to keep up with constant change,” Sharp said. She also contended that society must create ‘surround-sound’ systems of support to provide stability, such as coaching, skills matching, and tech platforms to help people access jobs.

In his remarks, John Stackhouse stated: “We’re at an intersection of history. We need to take risks to avoid putting future generations at risk.” He estimated that there will be more jobs, not less, created over the next five years – 2.4 million jobs, and not enough people with the skills required to fill them.  “We’re not in an age of automation, we’re in an age of augmentation,” he noted. Stackhouse also referred to a recent report prepared by RBC entitled “Humans Wanted:  How Canadian youth can thrive in the age of disruption.” While the biggest disruptions are still approximately a decade away, the report found that communication, critical thinking and collaboration skills will be crucial to success in any sector, while math proficiency and fluency in data will also be important, as will global and cultural competency.  What will be less important, in his view, are credentials. “Employers must start looking at skills rather than credentials when assessing new hires.”

While Stackhouse gave high praise to polytechnics for their commitment to work integrated learning, he stated that the same approach should be taken across the entire postsecondary education system. He echoed Sharp’s remarks on the need for lifelong learning. "When a student leaves your campus it cannot be the end of the education journey, it's only the beginning," he said.

The Power of Creativity and Creative Problem Solving

Dr. Gerard Puccio delivered an engaging presentation on the nature and power of creativity and creative problem solving. Simply put, “creativity is about the production of novel ideas that have value.” He noted that it takes 3,000 concepts to yield one innovation, thus the importance of teaching oneself to be divergent in generating ideas that are later evaluated and converged to select a solution to a complex challenge. He stressed that creativity is a life skill that matters and one that can be taught and honed over time. “Creativity is the ability to modify self-imposed constraints.” The ability to apply creative problem solving is also a competitive advantage. “It gives people the mindset they need to confront complex issues and the competence to deal with the challenges they’ll inevitably face in their professions,” he added.

Superclusters and Polytechnics: Making the Link

The final presentation of the day was a panel discussion entitled “Superclusters and Polytechnics: Making the Link.” Featured on the panel were experts who are involved in two of Canada’s Innovation Superclusters. Representing Advanced Manufacturing, based in Ontario were: Jayson Myers, Principal at Jayson Myers Public Affairs and Michelle Chretien, Director of the Centre for Advanced Manufacturing and Design Technologies at Sheridan. Representing the Protein Industries, based in the Prairies were: Jo Kennelly, Strategic Partner, Sightline Innovation Inc. and Mary Donlevy-Konkin, Senior Counsel, McKercher LLP. The panel was moderated by Mitch Davies, Assistant Deputy Minister, Innovation Canada. 

In discussing their early-stage thinking, the panelists agreed that innovation is a people game, meaning it’s about mobilizing human potential and getting more out of the efforts by working across sectors.  They noted that Polytechnics are ideally suited to contribute, as they already understand industry needs, are deeply embedded in local communities, and are concerned with the practical application of knowledge to solve problems. Moving forward, the question polytechnics should be asking themselves is ‘how can we learn more about these areas and gaps and make ourselves easier to interact with to support the superclusters in their innovation agenda?’

The event concluded with a showcase of Sheridan’s five Centres of Excellence and a reception marking the retirement of Chief Executive Officer, Nobina Robinson, and the appointment of Sarah Watts Rynard.

About Polytechnics Canada:

Polytechnics Canada is a national association of Canada’s leading colleges, polytechnics and institutes of technology.  Established in 2003, it is the voice of polytechnic institutions with a focus on advanced technical and technological education.  Driven by industry demand, its members provide highly qualified, skilled and innovation-ready talent for Canadian employers of all sizes, in all sectors.  A polytechnic education combines the applied approach of college programs with the depth of study commonly associated with university programs.  It provides a seamless transition from education to employment through apprenticeships in the skills trades and work-integrated learning opportunities.

Pictured top right (from left to right): Dr. Chris Whitaker, Chair, Polytechnics Canada; The Honourable Sonia Sidhu, MP for Brampton South; The Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science and Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities; Dr. Mary Preece, President and Vice Chancellor, Sheridan College; Cody McKay, Policy Analyst, Polytechnics Canada; Nobina Robinson, CEO of Polytechnics Canada.