OTTAWA - The state of Canada's workforce — and Stephen Harper's attempts to beef it up — will be under the microscope Wednesday as Statistics Canada releases the latest chapter of its replacement for the long-form census.
The second tranche of the National Household Survey will portray in detail how educated Canadians are, where they work, how they get there, what language they use in the office, and how often they change jobs.
As the federal Conservatives place skills and training at the centre of their policy agenda, the survey is expected to provide a clearer picture of what parts of the workforce are aging, what sectors are on the wane, and where educators are putting an increasing emphasis.
Specifically, the survey will highlight the education gap between girls and boys, showing whether young women continue to dominate university and college attainment.
The 2006 census showed that 33 per cent of women between 25 and 34 years old had a university degree, compared to just 25 per cent of men. As for college diplomas, women of all ages dramatically outnumbered men.
This week's survey — a voluntary endeavour, unlike its mandatory predecessor, making comparisons difficult — will also shed light on whether aboriginal peoples are making progress in their struggle to improve graduation rates, and catch up to the rest of the population.
Employment and education of immigrants will also get a thorough examination.
And special attention will be paid to science, math and technology. What demographics are flooding into a group of fields thought to be the key to Canada's competitive advantage?
The survey will also examine the aging of the workforce, exploring which professions have the oldest employees, and which areas are attracting younger workers.
"We should see some changes, some shifting to the knowledge economy," said Doug Norris, chief demographer at Environics Analytics and a former senior official for the census.
Norris said he expects employment in the retail sector will surpass manufacturing jobs — proof of the slow shift away from goods production towards services, something the Canadian economy has been experiencing for a decade.
Equally important in the survey will be what's missing. The survey does not replicate the long-form census of years past, making precise comparisons over time difficult because of the change in the way the information is collected, officials say.
The first release of the survey, which took place in May, also made it clear Statistics Canada is reluctant to release data at the local level.
Rather, the emphasis will be on the big picture of labour and education in Canada, giving governments, employers, educators and employees a deeper understanding of the availability of skills in regions across the country.
It's the supply side of what Harper calls the "skills gap" — the mismatch between what employers want and what employees have to offer. The other side of the equation — the demand for labour — is not directly part of the survey, although some information can be gleaned from unemployment rates.
Accurate labour market information has long been a barrier to a better alignment, experts say — but the survey data will only go part way towards fixing the problem.
For the student hoping to choose a field of study that will eventually lead to productive work, this week's survey will only yield clues and not very much solid information, said Rick Miner, who runs a Toronto management consulting firm.
That's because many of the professional categories and coding of industries are 10 years out of date, he said, leaving modern professional options out in favour of old-fashioned jobs.
"A lot of the evolving jobs, particularly in the computing area, they don't really stand out as jobs, and get thrown into large cluster areas," Miner said.
Plus, the survey will likely have difficulty picking up how many university graduates feel the need to back up their degrees with college diplomas in order to find work in their chosen fields, he added.
Miner said his experience at Seneca College in Toronto suggests between 15 and 20 per cent of students already have a university degree. And as governments, parents and indebted students pinch their education pennies, Miner said it is increasingly important to have a full understanding of how education best meets the needs of the workforce.
"We're creating a longer educational requirement than we need," he said.
What Miner speaks about in the abstract, 19-year-old Sarah Mathewson experiences every day. She just finished her second year in studio arts at Concordia University in Montreal, and is already contemplating topping off her degree with a college diploma in graphic design.
"It would have made a lot of sense to do graphic design first," Mathewson said from Almonte, Ont., where she is volunteering at an art gallery for the summer.
Like many of her friends who focused on the arts in high school, Mathewson said she didn't hear much about career paths and educational requirements until university. She didn't consider complementing her creativity with courses in web design and information technology until coming face to face with the prospect of finding a summer job.
In the meantime, she said, she's taking on debt.
"I do wish there were more access to what jobs are out there," she said. "It's hard enough to figure out what jobs are creative."