Back to the books to rebuild Alberta’s economy

Alberta’s economic future depends on a more diversified workforce that tackles the tasks of new industry with skill, imagination and clarity

RED DEER, Alta. Sept. 12, 2016/Troy Media/ – ‘Back to school’ can be one of the most loathsome phrases in the English language – unless your economy is in tatters.

Then it takes on an almost unimaginable lustre.

In difficult times, education can be a profound economic creator, retraining a workforce to be more productive and imaginative. (As demand for schooling increases, so too does the need for teachers, classrooms and support services, further propping up the economy.)

Even when the economic benefits aren’t as clear, education is a social panacea, addressing issues of perspective and poise in the general population. And, in general, the broader our knowledge, the better our coping skills. And Albertans need coping skills more than ever.

Across Alberta, improbably high jobless numbers have lingered for too long. And many Albertans who are working feel increasing economic pressure. The Canadian Payroll Association says that half of working Albertans would struggle to pay their bills if their pay was delayed even a week.

In Red Deer, where the jobless number has reached 10 per cent, the response among young people has been resoundingly positive: Red Deer College enrolment figures are up 10 per cent this year and up a remarkable 20 per cent over the last two years.

Of course, it’s not enough for people to return to school. They need to be met with quality programs at credible institutions. That means more funding and creative leadership from the province.

The good news is that the latest Quacquarelli Symonds World University Rankings puts the University of Alberta at 94th place and the University of Calgary at 196. In a ranking of the top 600 universities in the world, those are admirable numbers, if not stellar.

The bad news is more pervasive.

Alberta’s post-secondary schools have struggled for adequate funding for years, appealing desperately to every level of government and business.

At the same time, student debt loads are high and rising.

In the face of all of this has been a lack of leadership about post-secondary’s role and potential. Red Deer College, for example, has long sought to expand its programs, in part to offer degrees and in part to attract more technical students. The polytechnic university status it seeks has repeatedly been welcomed by provincial leaders, but never approved nor funded. In the last five years, the college has had to restate its pitch to a parade of five premiers and as many education ministers.

At the primary and secondary level, the provincial government has launched a broad review of the curriculum, the first in more than 30 years. The overhaul is long overdue, even for a system that consistently serves well. Alberta students regularly rank among the best nationally and internationally.

A recent Fraser Institute study says Alberta public school spending has increased by 70 per cent in the past decade. Of course, that perspective fails to take into account a variety of factors, including that there are almost one million more people in the province than there was a decade ago. Such explosive growth pushes costs dramatically, since education isn’t just about teachers and students. It requires a host of tools and supports, like schools themselves.

The fact is, Alberta’s high school graduation rates are now at their highest level ever – 82.1 per cent. Those are the kind of improvements Albertans expect for their tax dollars.

However, teachers are preparing to negotiate a new contract after several years of flat incomes. And they say they work longer hours with fewer resources, particularly for special-needs children, so unrest is rising.

At the same time, the school building bee underway is years late. So classrooms remain overcrowded in community after community.

As the curriculum is reviewed, parents are raising concerns about the need for greater focus on the sciences and technology. They say ‘soft options’ so common in middle school and high school take resources away from more productive 21st century course.

In fact, education should always be expansive, not restrictive. The greater the options available, the more rounded and prepared our young people are. But that costs more money.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development says that higher education levels mean more sustainable industry, and better stability and pay for workers.

Alberta’s economic future depends on greater diversity. That doesn’t just mean a greater diversity of industry. It means a more diversified workforce, one that can tackle the tasks of new industry with skill, imagination and clarity.

Getting Alberta back to school in earnest at all levels is the best route to that diversity.

Troy Media columnist John Stewart is a born and bred Albertan who doesn’t drill for oil, ranch or drive a pickup truck – although all of those things have played a role in his past. John is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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