There is a general consensus that Canada has a productivity gap. Yet the issue refuses to capture the public’s imagination or to take a higher priority on the nation’s political agenda. Claims that the sky is falling run contrary to public confidence that the economy is buoyant and resilient. At the same time, there is a widespread view that while prosperity is abundant, it is shared unequally and that in the face of unprecedented growth, the same advocates of productivity stand idly by and allow our social safety net – our health care, education and quality of life in our cities – to unravel.

For most people, increasing productivity involves little more than working harder or personal sacrifice. The perceived beneficiary to increased productivity is business, and therefore it hardly seems like a fair bargain or worthy of pursuit. Even those in government who might recognize that dealing with productivity is good policy are loath to advance the topic with any vigour.

I have moderated Microsoft Canada’s CAN>WIN conference on this topic four times since 2001 and watched some of Canada’s and the world’s brightest minds work their way through this dilemma. The consensus solutions to Canada’s prosperity problem are at once simple and deceptively complex.

Last year, renowned author Dr. Richard Florida argued that the key to productivity rests not with investment in machinery and equipment, taxation levels or technology, but with people – prosperity follows innovation and innovation is a function, pure and simple, of the calibre of people assigned to the task. Microsoft’s CEO Steve Ballmer, surprisingly agreed with Florida saying that as the head of the world’s largest technology company, he spends the lion’s share of his time on human resource issues, not software.

Two weeks ago, this year’s CAN>WIN set its sights squarely on the importance of people – educating them, retraining them, attracting them, keeping them, inspiring them and leading them. This focus is possibly the most important and substantive element of the productivity agenda because it not only may be the key to enhancing the nation’s prosperity and productivity, it might also bring the public into the debate as willing participants.

The exercise of holding successive Conferences on productivity is succeeding in bringing participants closer to identifying the most important part of the policy puzzle and has set the stage for cutting the Gordian knot of political indifference.

Even with this breakthrough, there will still be many challenges ahead. Over the last five years we have witnessed a decline in the perceived value of post-secondary education among Canadians. In the public’s mind, post-secondary education has become more and less important at the same time. It is more important because without it, opportunities are severely limited. It is less important because very few associate an undergraduate degree with the guarantee of meaningful job skills or employment, making it the equivalent of the high school diploma of the 1960s.

Both arguments should support encouragement of more post-graduate education. But University of Waterloo President David Johnson identified that Canada produces only half as many MAs and one-quarter as many PhD graduates as the United States on a per capita basis. As a nation, we are ambivalent about the purpose of post-secondary education. We feel its purpose is to spawn intellectual growth and to impart skill sets. Yet we give both Universities and Community Colleges less than stellar marks for achieving these twin goals.

Even with a greater focus on education, the needs of “the creative class” does not necessary align with the interests of the public. Swedish Employment and Industry Minister Sven-Otto Littorin spoke about his country’s remarkable economic transformation and how it was achieved not by an exclusive focus on elite education, but by a broader effort aimed at reducing drop-out rates in high school and welfare reform to bring the marginalized more fully into the economic mainstream.

At CAN>WIN, a conference peopled largely by Canada’s business leaders, there was broad agreement that Canada’s business community must change its behaviour and outlook where people skills are concerned. Today, human resource development is viewed as a cost rather than an investment and is often the first thing to be cut when times get tough or the last thing to be funded when a company feels pressure to produce higher margins.

Our workplaces have also failed to take full advantage of an underutilized pool of labour available today – university educated women. Similarly, new Canadians with university degrees are twice as likely to be employed in jobs requiring only a high school education as the non-immigrant work force.

Perhaps even more alarmingly, there appears to be an anti-intellectual bias in Canada’s business community. In a major study I conducted for the Rotman School of Management’s Task Force on Competitiveness and Prosperity, the most significant difference in the attitudes of Canadian versus American business leaders was that American business people were twice as likely as Canadians to recommend that a young person get a university education. This helps explain the underdeveloped relationship our business community has with Canadian universities and our rather woeful record on commercializing scientific research and development.

But there is hope. The CAN>WIN Conference concluded that there are fundamental initiatives that can proceed without delay if business, government and academics start pulling together. These include:

* Recognizing the credentials of immigrants and aligning their skills with labour market needs
* Removing inter-provincial trade barriers
* Erasing the artificial divide between Universities and Community Colleges and encouraging them to share resources and recognize each other’s course credits
* Creating a more comprehensive program of co-op placements, internships and apprenticeships to benefit businesses and educational institutions as well as the nation’s young people.

The challenge remains – if the advocates of the productivity agenda want to do more than simply talk to themselves at conferences, they are going to have to start speaking in a way that engages the public.