Harnessing untapped social sciences and humanities skills is Canada’s most valuable resource for boosting economic growth

(Published in Les Affaires on June 3, 2022—Exploitons davantage les compétences en sciences humaines)

Ted Hewitt, President, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council

Business and innovation leaders in Canada agree that pursuing inclusive, sustainable economic growth is a top priority. It is key to maintaining the prosperity and high standard of living of Canadians as the country moves forward in the postpandemic era. But how can we achieve this? Our goals for economic growth will only be realized by investing in and accessing the full breadth and depth of Canada’s human capital.

Dedicated action to strengthen human capital formation is a crucial element in developing a national economic growth strategy, according to the Senate Prosperity Action Group’s recent report on forging a new path for sustainable, inclusive and shared prosperity in Canada.

So, it’s time to look to Canada’s valuable untapped resource—the wealth of knowledge and skills generated by the social sciences and humanities.

Firms across all sectors and of all sizes are already benefitting from discipline-specific knowledge and skills, from expertise in economics, law and psychology to political science, history and geography. This includes bringing critical insights into understanding commercialization, consumer behaviour, adoption of new technologies, business management, and the ethical and legal implications of a company’s actions and products.

But the social sciences and humanities offer so much more in terms of filling the significant skills gaps in Canada. They provide the foundational or transferrable skills urgently in demand by business today: complex problem solving, communication, collaboration, creativity, social perceptiveness, emotional intelligence, adaptability and leadership.

A March 2022 report by the Conference Board of Canada and the Future Skills Centre reported that employers put the highest value on critical thinking, reading comprehension, monitoring and coordination—skills that reflect the attributes of training in the social sciences and humanities. Unfilled job vacancies related to each of these skills currently cost the Canadian economy $1 billion or more annually in unrealized value.

Currently, 920,000 students are enrolled in university and college programs in Canada that are focused on the social sciences and humanities, representing 64% of all enrolments. Putting their knowledge and skills to work when they graduate will help leverage Canada’s talent capital in a variety of areas, notably those that require multidisciplinary and collaborative approaches—a strength of these disciplines. 

For example:

Emerging technologies
Understanding social demand and responsibility for artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and genomics, as well as risk management and regulatory issues, will advance the commercialization and adoption of emerging technologies.

Labour market demand
Bringing insights to address labour market shortages, including better understanding of skills gaps, recruitment challenges, how to attract and integrate immigrants, and the effects of an aging population, will help businesses meet the challenge of accessing talent. 

Equity, Diversity and Inclusion
Understanding the historical, cultural and structural factors that have contributed to inequality, and designing the most effective strategies to promote equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in the economy will help achieve our broader EDI goals.

Futures thinking
Providing insight into the past will help inform how the world may look in the future and how our society and economy can apply, work with, adapt to and relate to a new development or trend. It can also help us understand how changes in social, political or economic factors can affect business going forward.

Now, more than ever, Canadian business needs the foundational skills generated and fostered by the social sciences and humanities to complement and maximize the impact of STEM skills, increase productivity, cultivate innovative thinking and develop more flexible, multidisciplinary approaches.

It’s time to tap into Canada’s most valuable untapped resource. We must harness the unique knowledge and skills of social sciences and humanities talent to drive innovation and business success in our nation’s pursuit of inclusive, sustainable economic growth. 

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