While at an education
conference this year I had the pleasure of hearing former House Speaker Newt
Gingrich talk about the changing face of education from a US perspective.
He asked a group of 1700 delegates, each of them owners or operators of private
vocational training institutions, whether they thought America could 'stay the
course' and still maintain a competitive edge over countries like China and
India during the next 25 years. Not a
single hand was raised. He gave an American perspective, which frankly has
ubiquitous application for Canadians: America would not stay competitive with
China and India over the next twenty-five years if it did not respond
competitively and derogate from 'staying the course'; technology has changed
the way students learn and must be utilized/exploited by educators; economic
reward is a tangible incentive to promote learning so unless we are truly
incenting students economically, we won't be competitive.
I agree with Mr. Gingrich,
but would add that an inexpensive, massive labor force, is not enough to
outpace the North American economy. In fact, the growing economies of India and
China create unprecedented opportunities for North Americans. Canadian and
American learning institutions take for granted their most prized possession-- expertise. Developing countries like
China and India have massive labor forces and enviable demographics (an
enviable army of young people), but not massive skilled labor forces. The exportation of our expertise can
translate into lucrative curriculum licensing agreements,
and the provision of regulatory expertise that will provide these countries
with enviable standards and metrics relating to
a) consumer protections;
b) worker protections;
c) health and safety
d) economic risk management;
e) human rights protections.
In an era of
"borderless" globalization, borders everywhere have become harder to
both define and protect. The internet, cheap air travel (despite increasing
fuel costs more recently), and wireless voice and data technologies have
allowed us to interface with foreign countries at an increasing pace. The
Microsoft slogan "where do you want to go today?" is almost a
metaphor for the modern age we live in.
While nobody would argue that science and technology has extended the
lifespan of the human species, isn't the pace of globalization also creating
some hidden dangers? What dangers, you ask?
As North Americans we assume
that every bridge we cross will be safe, and that every building we enter will
not collapse. We also assume that after a plumber or an electrician leaves our
home we will not have a flood or fire.
Most significantly, we assume that after we receive an injection of any
medication in a hospital that we have been injected with a sterile needle, and
that the right medication has been administered. North Americans make these
assumptions because we assume there
are sufficient standards in place to protect the public. For example, in
Canada, architects must undergo rigorous training and are subject to both
professional discipline and civil liability if they are negligent; so too are
allied health professionals, including nurses and other hospital workers.
The sad reality is that
there is infrastructure decay even in North American communities where standards
are relatively high; in
Ontario, 50% of persons in the building trades are over the age of 50; and
there is a nursing shortage on both sides of the border that is not likely to
let up sometime soon. Speaking from a Canadian perspective, an ageing demographic
and declining birth rates have led to acute labor shortages, especially within
certain sectors and sub-sectors.
The shortage of skilled labor is not something unique to
Canada or the United States, but is
instead a global problem. China and India's rapid economic growth has created a
myriad of opportunities for its citizens. But with those opportunities come
some real perils. Aside from the human cost of construction workers hanging out
of windows without safety equipment, or welders not wearing protective eye
gear, one must ponder what will happen with buildings and bridges and roads
there? If aged buildings and bridges are decaying and collapsing here in North
America where standards are high, what is their "shelf-life' in other
parts of the world where ISO standards
and other educational requirements are not the same, and where there is little
or no formal vocational training offered. High standards and accreditation in
the trades and other vocational training institutions becomes important for
precisely this reason.
On the one hand, neither
Canadians nor Americans can compete with the vast, cheap labor pool overseas.
I'm not sure that North American companies can or should compete on price, with
anything manufactured in China or
India. Instead, we should be focused on
the expertise that we can export and how North American companies can compete
within a fast-changing global milieu. Canadians, for example, have significant
expertise in mining, natural resources, health care, Information Technology,
and telecommunications—to name just a few sectors where we can bring our
relative expertise to the world.
As a Canadian lawyer whose
practice has been restricted to the representation of private career colleges I
am constantly reminded that the world is changing. I represent colleges that
provide vocational training in vocations ranging from health care, aesthetics,
culinary arts, and information technology, to those which I never knew existed.
North American educators and professionals alike should be focusing their
efforts on providing standards, metrics, curricula, and structure to the world.
In the future, we might then be less concerned about roads and buildings
collapsing, about medical mistakes, and lead in our children's toys: these
issues affect everyone in an increasingly borderless society.