Applied research: Developing the next-generation workforce

The global talent race is heating up and countries that aren’t ensuring their best and brightest have skills for the next century will be left behind.  This race is largely driven by the changing nature of work and significant advances in technology, which are expected to impact businesses and social organizations in every sector of our country.  In my previous blogs, I highlighted how applied research drives innovation activity in Canadian businesses, and how applied research is tackling some of Canada’s most pressing social challenges.  In this third blog, I highlight a lesser known but no less critical role of applied research:  building the resilient workforce of tomorrow.

Join any conversation on how to stimulate productivity and growth in Canada, and you will inevitably come to the topic of skills and talent.  This reality resonated with the federal government.  In 2017, after two years of consultation, they introduced the Innovation and Skills Plan, which seeks to not only create the right mix of programs and policies to stimulate economic growth, but develop future-resilient talent here at home as well.

A key talent component of the Innovation and Skills plan is increasing accessibility to work-integrated learning opportunities.  WIL gives students a chance to apply classroom concepts to real-world situations, developing the technical, analytical and employability skills required to succeed on-the-job.  This kind of résumé-building opportunity smooths what can be an otherwise bumpy school-to-work transition.  Meanwhile, engagement with students allows employers to build relationships with prospective employees, reducing the risk of a bad hire and positioning them as an employer of choice.  Polytechnics have long known that career-ready graduates require high-quality interactions with industry as a part of their post-secondary experience, and the plan shows policymakers in Ottawa are catching on.

Applied research is particularly well-equipped to responding to the skills development imperative.  Small businesses, non-profit organizations and community partners come to polytechnics to address challenges, develop prototypes and experiment with new technologies.  In addition to the facilities, equipment and expertise resident on campus, applied research often presents opportunities to bring students into the mix.  They offer new ideas and approaches to projects, while also developing fluency in workplace culture and knowledge about how to apply their education to real-world problems.

For example, Longo’s grocery chain recently partnered with Humber’s User Experience Design Program to build working prototypes for Grocery Gateway, one of Canada’s largest online grocery delivery services.  The partnership gives students an opportunity to draw on their technology, media and intelligent design skills to elevate the online experience of Longo’s customers.  At George Brown, a long-standing relationship with Cisco provides capstone project opportunities like the one that challenged students to build an attachment to Cisco’s IP phone for a suite of room sensors operated on the phone’s digital interface.

Applied research capacity also enables institutions to become innovation incubators, creating opportunities for mentorship, technical support and collision space for students and start-ups.  Easy access to applied research facilities is ideal for entrepreneurs looking to turn novel ideas into reality.

For example, at Seneca, their HELIX incubation space was the first home of Ripple Farms, an urban agri-tech start-up that built a modular urban farm using aquaponics – a combination of aquaculture and hydroponic agriculture.  Algonquin College’s DARE (Discovery, Applied Research & Entrepreneurship) District reflects its multidisciplinary nature right in its name, combining applied research facilities with open technology resources and makerspaces.  Spaces like these inspire innovators-in-training to think outside the box – a skillset in high demand in every economic sector.

Equipping learners with the tools, skills and experience they need to succeed in the future economy is essential to Canada’s productivity.  Polytechnics and their applied research infrastructure feed the talent pipeline that is so critical to innovation and growth, creating next-generation skills in the learners who will lead us into the future.  For more great examples of talent development at Canada’s polytechnic institutions, check out Polytechnic Applied Research:  Building a Stronger Canada.

About the Author

Cody McKay, Policy Analyst at Polytechnics Canada

Cody focuses on policies and programs relating to innovation and research. He supports the work of member Applied Research offices, bringing together leaders to ensure their initiatives in support of industry innovation and economic development are recognized at the federal level. Cody holds a Postgraduate Certificate in Project Management with a focus on international development from Humber, and a Bachelor Degree in International Relations from St. Thomas University in Fredericton. Prior to joining Polytechnics Canada, Cody worked with the Government of New Brunswick and the Canadian Red Cross.