The knowledge worker quandary

International ag students pose a challenge to brain gain efforts in Canada

Hewers of wood and drawers of water.

For decades, economists and ordinary Canadians have used those words to describe the flaws of the economy and the country’s over dependence on natural resources.

Digvir Jayas, research and international vice-president at the University of Manitoba, also believes Canada is over-reliant on resources, but he uses different words to describe the problem.

“Being a resource-rich country, we have relied quite heavily on a growing and digging and shipping economy. A grow, dig and ship economy,” said Jayas, a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and former Canada research chair in stored grain ecosystems.

Related: Ag graduate studies a multicultural endeavour

It’s debatable if Canada is over dependent on growing things and digging stuff out of the ground, but many experts are concerned the country is moving too slowly toward a knowledge economy, where ideas, technology and innovation are the drivers of growth.

A knowledge economy requires people with expertise, and that could soon be a challenge for Canada’s agri-food sector because most  students pursuing a masters or PhD in areas like plant and food science are international students. 

Many of those students may leave Canada after earning their graduate degrees, causing a “brain drain” of agriculture and agri-food specialists.

“If you want to have a knowledge ecomomy … the major asset you need is the knowledge worker,” Jayas said. “And the knowledge workers come from qualified people at the masters and doctorate level.”

University of Manitoba statistics show that 24.2 percent of students in the faculty of agriculture’s undergraduate program are international students. At the masters and PhD level the percentage is 53.7 percent.

Jayas, who is from India and was an international student at the U of M and the University of Saskatchewan, was surprised by the 53.7 figure. 

He didn’t think it was that high.

The numbers are similar in the college of agriculture and bio-resources at the U of S.

“I would suggest that 55 to 60 percent of our grad students in the college are international students,” said Bob Tyler, associate dean for the college, adding most of the students come from Asia. “China would be number one. India would be number two.”

Tyler doesn’t know how many international students stay. However, he does know that Canada needs experts in plant genomics, food ingredients and animal science.

“I would say … (if) our international graduates stay here it certainly provides value to the country,” he said. 

“I don’t know what the percentage is, but I would agree that if we had 90 percent of the international students … leave upon completion, we might want to re-evaluate why we’re training international students.”

To be clear, 90 percent of international students in agricultural sciences don’t leave Canada after they earn a masters or a PhD. 

A percentage do leave and become, in Jayas’ words, “knowledge workers.” In some cases, they leave for other countries that are Canada’s competitors in the global agri-food industry.

It’s important to keep at least a portion of those knowledge workers because star scientists can transform society and the economy.

One obvious example, from the world of agriculture, is the story of Baldur Stefansson. 

He was born in the tiny community of Vestfold, Man., in a family of 10 children. After serving in the Second World War, he earned a PhD from the U of M and became an oilseed breeder at the university. He famously teamed up with Keith Downey of Agriculture Canada to develop canola and invigorate Canada’s agri-food sector. 

Canola is now worth about $26 billion annually to the nation’s economy.

If international students in agricultural sciences leave and take their knowledge elsewhere, it begs a few questions:

Who will be the next Baldur Stefansson? 

Who is going to drive innovation and push Canada’s agri-food industry into the future?

What does it mean for Canada’s economy?

Barton Report

In 2017, the Advisory Council on Economic Growth issued a series of reports on how to improve Canada’s economy. The chair of the council, Dominic Barton, pointed to agriculture and agri-food as a massive opportunity for Canada. The report, known as the Barton Report, suggested that Canada should set targets for agriculture and ag-food exports so the country becomes the world’s second largest exporter of agricultural commodities and fifth biggest exporter of ag-foods.

In dollar values, the federal government set a target of $75 billion in annual agriculture and food exports by 2025, up from $56 billion in 2016.

Getting to $75 billion is much “more complex” than exporting more grains and oilseeds, said Don Buckingham, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Agri-food Policy Institute, a thinktank in Ottawa.

Canada needs more agri-food innovation and more scientists to drive that innovation.

“So, we’re not just producing more wheat, so we’re actually producing more innovative technologies that will be used worldwide to produce more wheat,” he said. “Not only selling the product but … selling the technology that will produce the product.”

Barton also said that Canada should export more agricultural technologies.

“Increase exports of equipment and digital and scientific services (for example genomics) by US$3 billion to US$5 billion over 10 years,” the report said. “We would achieve these goals by tapping into the advanced manufacturing expertise of other Canadian economic sectors and by adopting strategies like those of successful technology exporters, such as Israel and The Netherlands.”

The report went on to say that Canada needs to attract and retain “top international talent” in ag-food research and development by “expediting visa applications for skilled workers.”

Keeping talent

Are we trying to keep the best talent?

The answer to that question, at least at the U of S, is no.

“We don’t do anything, in particular, to try and keep them (international students) here,” Tyler said. “We don’t have any kind of program or incentives to have them stay.”

Even if there were incentives, a number of students wouldn’t stay in Canada because they have commitments in their country of origin. Foreign governments sponsor students to study abroad and the students are required to take their expertise back home. Many others want to stay in Canada but it comes down to opportunity. If there is a better job at home or in another country, they are likely to leave.

“The best way to keep students here is to have opportunities for them,” Tyler said.

The opportunity is the tricky bit for Canada’s agri-food industry. Jayas compared it to a chicken-and-egg situation. Students with a masters or PhD need job opportunities and good pay. Organizations need a skilled population of potential employees. 

The question is, which comes first? The population of knowledge workers, or a critical mass of companies needing talent?

Jayas believes it’s the former. 

“If you ask the companies, what they are looking (at) is the talent pool available. If the talent is not there (they will look elsewhere for investment),” he said. “If we truly want to have a knowledge economy … where we do the processing here and we do the innovations here, we need this talent pool.”

For the moment, Canada probably doesn’t have a shortage of ag scientists, Tyler said.

But in February, the federal government committed $150 million to create a Protein Industries Supercluster to expand Canada’s production and processing of plant proteins.

“The Protein Industries Supercluster will create new opportunities for all the companies involved, help create more than 4,500 new jobs in the prairie provinces,” said Terry Duguid, a Winnipeg MP.

Similarly, Richardson International is building a $30 million innovation centre in downtown Winnipeg for food and ingredient development.

Such projects require plant scientists, food scientists and other experts. 

“If you have more talented people around, they want to drive the companies to become more innovative,” Jayas said.

Canada and the ag industry may benefit if more international students have careers in Canada, but it’s not like Canada wins if they stay and loses if they go.

Having former students distributed around the world is a good thing for Canadian agriculture.

“If you look at benefits of having former students, advocates, friends and supporters, in high levels of government and industry and academia, around the world, there are tremendous benefits that we can’t overlook,” Tyler said. “Is the balance of Canadian/international (students) correct? I don’t know…. All I know is that the system has worked pretty well for a long time. We have to be careful with the steps we take.”

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