Quebec's economy is booming, with near full employment and growth outstripping all but two provinces in 2017. Yet its education system is on a demographic collision course.

Persistent dropout rates for high school youth and language barriers for many new Canadians are presenting the province – and its youth – with an acute challenge for the 2020s, as the Baby Boom retires and automation takes hold.

Will technology add to the burden, or ease it?

We debated the question at a recent Montreal roundtable, the first of a series with youth and education leaders across the country to explore the findings and recommendations of Humans Wanted, RBC’s landmark study of the Canadian workforce in an age of automation.

For Quebec, the economic benefits of technology are evident. According to RBC Economics, if the province can help its youth raise their productivity to the G7 average, it could add $7 billion to its economy.

Then there’s the social benefits of retaining and attracting a new generation to enhance Quebec’s place in the world.

But the status quo won’t do.

“We need to disrupt ourselves,” said Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainoux, dean of McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management.

Here’s how:

More High School Completion

A recent report from the Institut du Québec found the province’s high-school graduation rate (64%) to be the lowest in Canada, 20% lower than in Ontario, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. It’s a challenge that’s deeply rooted in small towns and rural communities where youth still find good opportunities in the trades and manual labour. Trouble is, those jobs are being automated quickly, and many youth don’t have the breadth of skills they’ll need to move to the jobs of tomorrow, which will be much more tech-dependent.

More STEM

Quebec lags Canada in enrolment in science, technology, engineering and math and computer sciences, the so-called STEM streams. Statistics Canada data from 2016 show that of the province’s youth aged 20-29, the percentage who majored in STEM was only 17.7%, well behind Ontario (20.1%) and Alberta (21.5%). Pierre Dumouchel, who heads École de technologie supérieure, a Montreal engineering university, said Ontario has double the number of engineering students as Quebec. As a result, his school was able to fill only 3,600 of 6,000 available internships this past year. Dumochel calculates Québec will need to increase its engineering placements by 5.4% a year for another decade, with a heavy focus on software, to meet the current shortfall.

More Diversity

Quebec needs to boost the participation of women, indigenous youth and children of new Canadians in the STEM fields. That may require a rethinking of the prerequisites for engineering programs, which tend to exclude many girls who opt out of hard science courses in high school. Language barriers remains a challenge, too. Guy Breton, rector of Université de Montréal, said 40% of his students have neither French nor English as their primary language. It’s a growing issue in Montreal, where nearly one quarter of 20 to 24 year olds don’t claim French or English as their first language, up 21.2% from a decade ago. One idea: the province could make it easier for the 40,000 foreign students it graduates every year to transition into the workforce.

More Human Skills

François Bertrand, who heads the research, innovation and international affairs department at École Polytechnique, said there’s a need for a “C generation” of collaborators, communicators, and critical thinkers. He calls them “power skills,” which will be increasingly important to every job, from the surgeon to the sous-chef. Yet not enough Quebec schools are promoting, or measuring, those power skills. And not enough employers are sending signals to the market by hiring explicitly for them. An exception: the MBA program at HEC requires students to volunteer at non-profits to develop their human skills.

More Internships

Quebec leads Canada in practical learning, with 18.3% of its twenty-somethings holding an apprenticeship or trade certificate. That’s more than double the national average (8.3%). And it’s one reason Quebec has the lowest skills mismatch in Canada, with only 6.8% of STEM graduates holding jobs they’re over-qualified for, compared to 11.1% in Ontario and 12.1% in B.C., according to the 2016 census. Iris Unger, executive director of Youth Employment Services Montreal, cited paid internship programs as a critical bridge for youth into the workplace

More Space for Entrepreneurs

Caroline Brouillette, a social impact strategist at the consulting firm Credo, wants schools to explore new employment models, including flexible hours and “side hustles.” That would require more employers to create space for employees to pursue their entrepreneurial ambitions while also holding down a day job. And for many organizations, that would mean integrating entrepreneurship into their culture to help foster innovation among younger employees and attract quality talent.

John Stackhouse is a nationally bestselling author and one of Canada’s leading voices on innovation and economic disruption. He is senior vice-president in the office of the CEO at Royal Bank of Canada, leading the organization’s research and thought leadership on economic, technological and social change. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail and editor of Report on Business. He is a senior fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. His latest book is Planet Canada: How Our Expats Are Shaping the Future, which explores the untapped resource of the millions of Canadians who don’t live here but exert their influence from afar.

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