It’s no secret: COVID-19 hammered the Canadian economy in a way that no one could have imagined. It seemed like a great deal of our financial infrastructure was dismantled almost overnight. Our GDP fell by almost 20% in the immediate aftermath of the declaration of the pandemic, unemployment surged to nearly 14%, and businesses collapsed in the wake of this unprecedented health crisis.
And the sector of the economy that bore the brunt of COVID’s financial impact were small and medium enterprises (SME). Even by the fall of 2021, SMEs were reporting below average sales, with only 42% of businesses returning to pre-COVID staffing levels according to a survey by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. However, hope and recovery are on the horizon.
Now we can imagine life with the coronavirus under a semblance of control (thanks to the vaccines and public health measures) and SMEs are looking to rebound, with institutions like colleges, institutes, polytechnics and CEGEPS ready to forge partnerships with these businesses.
Colleges and institutes have long maintained a leadership role in bringing innovation and diversity to the SME community. They have done this by building partnerships with SMEs wherein theyíve listened to the stakeholders and implemented strategies, training and technology that both solve existing problems and advance companies into a stable work environment. This is good for SMEs and the people they employ.
Collaboration and diversity
At no time has this spirit of collaboration been more important. As provinces continue to lift restrictions, and SMEs get back on their feet, colleges and institutes are redoubling their efforts to strengthen their partnerships with a special emphasis on diversity and inclusion. The data confirms long held believes: a diverse workforceóone that embraces the contribution of women, BIPOC and LGBTQ2+ innovatorsóis better for both society and the economy. A 2015 McKinsey and Company report concluded that companies that lead in racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. Also, companies that lead in gender diversity are 15% more likely to exceed industry standards in terms of financial returns. These conclusions have been complimented by a Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship report that says a financial plan that embraces diversity and inclusion will lead Canada out of the economic hardship posed by the pandemic.
Colleges and institutes are positioning themself to help SMEs utilize diversity in their efforts to advance in the post-COVID era. They are doing this by understanding the challenges to diversity inherent in the existing economy. Here are the pertinent statistics:
Women are majority owners in around 16% of SMEs across Canada and account for 37% of the self-employed workforce. Despite gains in female contributions in this sector of the economy, women have a harder time getting financing for their businesses than men. In other words, impediments still exist for female entrepreneurs in an economy that continues to cater to men.
Despite representing nearly 20% of the population of Canada, visible minorities make up just over 12% of SMEs. Many of these companies experienced a 40% revenue drop as a result of the pandemic.
Indigenous entrepreneurs make up less than 2% of Canadaís SMEs even though they make up nearly 5% of the population. Indigenous business owners report many challenges that bar them from making major inroads in the economy.
If Canada hopes to rebuild and move forward in the wake of the pandemic, we will need to embrace the diversity that we have long held in such high esteem. This will mean a move from lip-service to action, and colleges and institutes stand ready to help SMEs embrace female, BIPOC and LGBTQ2+ entrepreneurs into the new era. With over 95% of Canadians living within 50 kilometres of a college, institute, Cegep or polytechnic, the infrastructure is in place for these partnerships to be fostered. They also have quite a bit of clout: they know the existing resources available for SMEs to tap into and have a proven track record of working with businesses to improve their chances of success. Colleges and institutes have reason to be optimistic:
They provide over 10,000 programs to learners from coast to coast to coast.
They are a vital part of a Canadaís innovation ecosystem with participation in over 7,000 research partnerships and over 4,000 innovations (processes, products, prototypes, and services).
The next step is to move beyond the policy framework of creating a more diverse economy to initiating programs that level the playing field for women, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ owned SMEs.
Changing the face of the economy
Many colleges and institutes are already hard at work making this happen. In Edmonton, the Mawji Centre for New Venture and Student Entrepreneurship is helping students at the Northern Alberta Institute for Technology enter the business community with mentorship programs, workshops and interdisciplinary studies with diversity as a cornerstone of the venture. Yukon University, besides having an excellent overall business development program for Yukoners, is also a Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hubófocusing on the challenges and tools needed for women to build a successful business. Fort McMurrayís Keyano College has built their Aboriginal Entrepreneurship Program to help their Indigenous students navigate the business world. Meanwhile, Algonquin College in Ottawa has their Discovery, Applied Research, and Entrepreneurship (DARE) multidisciplinary study space that imbeds Indigenous knowledge, methodology, and imagery into its program for students, researchers and businesspeople. These are just four examples of how CICan members are working to change the face of the economy in Canada.
An act of will
Change not only takes time, but it also takes will. Colleges and institutes are working with SMEs to prove that diversity is more than an ideal. They are making this happen through an act of will and determination that is changing the look and feel of the Canadian economy. This new and evolving framework enhances the representation of women, BIPOC and LGBTQ2+ communities. The decision to be a part of this process is not simply based on it being the right thing to do; the data also supports this shift. Itís a fact: an economy built on diversity and inclusion of all facets of society is much more robust and ready to survive in the long-term. It is the multicultural dream that Canada has embraced for decades. We are very close to make true diversity and inclusion a fact of our economic lives, with the partnerships built between colleges, institutes and SMEs playing a key role in this evolving process.
By: Sean Dolan