Human capital is the key to Quebec’s economic relaunch

It’s essential to address the labour shortage and to upgrade workers’ skills.

Lettre ouverte par Karl Blackburn, président et chef de la direction du CPQ, publiée le 25 mars 2021 dans la Montreal Gazette.

As the hardest-hit sectors of the economy prepare for a gradual reopening, all eyes are on Quebec Finance Minister Eric Girard and the budget he will unveil Thursday.

For more than a year now, every economic sector has contended with jolts and transformations. Several made a go of it and managed to keep a solid footing, like the construction and renovation industries, which both saw great spikes in activity. Yet others, like the aerospace industry and the tourism ecosystem, were grounded almost entirely. Provincial and federal assistance certainly helped avert disaster before mass vaccination efforts could be rolled out, but there is no guarantee that the economic relaunch will reach all sectors or happen in one fell swoop.

Thursday’s budget will undoubtedly offer solutions, imperfect as they may be, given the pandemic’s inherent unpredictability. Still, the intentions driving them will be crucial: Will the government’s response rise to meet our collective economic concerns?

Using substantial feedback from its members — businesses, associations and institutions from across all of the province’s economic sectors and regions — the Conseil du patronat du Québec (CPQ) developed a series of recommendations that were presented to the finance minister.

Some of these seek to revive investment, particularly in strategic sectors. Others ask the government to ramp up funding to public transit systems, particularly those connecting regional centres. Another set of measures suggests making climate change a strategic economic focal point in such a way as to spur investment, business competitiveness and the growth of small and medium-sized businesses. Additionally, and most certainly this year, the CPQ asks that the government do everything it can to avoid increasing the business sector’s tax and regulatory burden.

A broad range of CPQ members were consulted to build this set of recommendations and, diverse as they may be, they all agreed on one thing: the importance of human capital in rising to meet the challenge, both in terms of numbers and qualifications.

Among the many ingredients needed for a true economic relaunch, human capital is arguably the most central. The CPQ firmly believes that workers and business leaders must be properly equipped to adapt to the changes already underway in how work gets done. Automation, robotization, digital expansion: these innovations each are gaining momentum and call for investments in labour training. This makes gaps in literacy, numeracy and digital competencies all the more burdensome, complicated by the fact that the illiteracy rate is much too high everywhere across the province.

The enduring labour shortage also weakens the ability of businesses to pursue, and indeed maintain, their activities. Government simply must step in with a fix. But how? Encouraging academic success among young people for one. Retaining and welcoming skilled labour back in the workforce is another, and this includes integrating those underrepresented in the labour market like Indigenous workers and workers with disabilities. Counting on new immigrant workers and international students is also key: recruiting more of them and retaining them, too.

The question of immigration is particularly preoccupying when one considers how Quebec faces a profound — and indeed growing — labour shortage, yet accounts for merely 12 per cent of immigration activity across the country. With such desperate needs in all of its regions, how can we choose not to capitalize on this pool of workers? A staggering question while the economic relaunch is still afoot.

Quebec can find its way back to a sturdy, inclusive and sustainable prosperity, if it makes access to human capital, and its development, a top priority. The relaunch depends on it.

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