A trading nation needs a globally engaged workforce

This op-ed was published by The Hill Times on April 15, 2024

Canada is a trading nation. In fact, in 2022 Canada’s two-way trade in goods and services reached a record high of $1.9 trillion. We have 15 free trade agreements reaching more than 60% of the world’s GDP, and Canada is the only G7 country with comprehensive free trade access to all its G7 counterparts and with the European Union.

This is a unique Canadian advantage in the global market, and the federal government has made diversification and expansion a priority. However, relying so heavily on trade also puts us at risk – geopolitical realities continue to change, industries and supply chains are being redefined, and new technologies are shifting where and how business is done.

Canadian businesses need to work harder to remain competitive, globally relevant, and accessible. A large part of that is having access to the right talent.

Study and work abroad experiences like those made possible with funding from Global Skills Opportunity (GSO) – a key element of Canada’s International Education Strategy – expose students to new environments, challenges and ways of thinking. It helps ensure that Canada’s talent pipeline is more culturally literate, adaptable and ready to succeed when they enter the workforce. For businesses, that means employees are better equipped to engage and understand customers, suppliers, and competitors around the world.

Those skills and traits are critical, because Canada has ambitious plans for growth that will require a large investment in wordly talent. And while global giants have the resources and networks to attract staff from anywhere in the world, 98% of Canadian businesses are small and medium-sized enterprises that mostly rely on local talent. We need to ensure that they have access to staff with global skills as well.

It’s important that we think strategically about talent acquisition and retention, particularly when we look at Canada’s demographic makeup. For example, we know that young Indigenous people are among the fastest growing populations. By making international work and study experiences more accessible to students who traditionally face barriers to participation, including students who identify as Indigenous, as differently abled, or as being from a low-income background, programs like GSO help to level the playing field while also expanding the pool of qualified talent for Canadian businesses to draw on.

Not to mention, a trading nation needs a globally engaged workforce, with people-to-people and business-to-business ties strengthening Canada’s place in the world. The more Canadians engage around the world, the more we bolster Canada’s reputation as a nation of innovators and a global place to do business. Similarly, the more Canadians come home with global competencies, the better we position our businesses for success around the world.

 GSO projects have already helped build over 800 collaborative partnerships between post- secondary institutions, businesses, and international organizations in more than 100 countries. Of these destinations, 80% are considered non-traditional for Canadian students – including Japan, Mexico, and Costa Rica – and are important markets for growth.

GSO is an established network and a successful pilot project with a proven track record. It makes good business sense that it become a permanent part of Canada’s ambition for growth.

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce represents more than 400 local chambers of commerce and boards of trade, along with more than 200,000 businesses of all types, sizes and sectors. We recognize that our long-term prosperity is closely tied to how we engage with the world. And if we don’t do so effectively, it’s more than a lost opportunity for growth – it’s an existential risk to business and our economic prosperity.

Perrin Beatty is president and CEO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

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