Dr. Alaa S. Abd-El-Aziz

Enhancing Atlantic Canada’s economy through the strengthening of our workforce

In the fall of 2019, Anna Stuart asked Dr. Alaa S. Abd-El-Aziz, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Prince Edward Island, to share his insights as to how Atlantic Canadian universities are preparing students—the future workforce—to contribute to the region’s growth and prosperity.

As the sixth President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI), and Past Chair of the Association of Atlantic Universities, Dr. Abd-El-Aziz has championed outstanding experiential learning opportunities that enable tomorrow’s workforce to develop to its full potential and emerge from studies ready to contribute to the betterment of our region and world. He shares his perspectives on preparing our region’s future workforce to grow our economy, the global challenges it will face, and the skills it will need to succeed.

Q. You have in-depth knowledge of the role universities play in Atlantic Canada’s economy. What are some significant trends that universities face as they prepare students to enter the workforce?

A: Preparing tomorrow’s workforce is a priority for us and our many higher learning stakeholders — students, parents, industry, government, and others. A well-educated workforce benefits our communities in many ways, from better health to more prosperous economies.

We anticipate that in many instances, our students will end up working in roles that have not yet been created. Creativity, an entrepreneurial spirit, critical thinking, and being able to translate and effectively communicate data will be essential for the workforce. Adaptability and the ability to apply learning in new settings will be crucial given that jobs are changing and being created at an unprecedented rate. Add the fact that our world and workforces have a greater level of interconnectivity than ever before and we have a more pressing need for graduates who can apply knowledge in ways that enable them to immediately contribute to challenges, collaborate on solutions, or adapt to ever-changing work environments.

UPEI’s vision centers on being a leader in experiential learning that enables students to develop to their full potential in both the classroom and the community. Our university strongly believes in preparing graduates for the future by providing as many hands-on learning experiences as possible. That means learning that takes place through classrooms, labs, community service experiences, leadership efforts, and more. This approach encourages students to be critical thinkers, to move beyond their comfort areas, and to take their traditional learning and apply it to changing situations.

We also need to address issues of globalization. Our students are all too aware of challenges such as climate change, poverty, and mental health. We strive to ensure our students understand these issues and recognize their role in helping develop solutions. Within our curriculum, we stress collaboration, reaching across traditional boundaries to forge partnerships, the importance of understanding different cultures, and the need to look at situations through different lenses. The workforce of tomorrow needs to harness the knowledge, energy, and perspectives of many if we are to succeed in making a difference in the sustainability of our planet, the health of our people, and the prosperity of our economies. Global awareness is not only a skill to check off a list—it is a responsibility to uphold.

Q. Along with experiential learning opportunities, what new initiatives has UPEI undertaken to address the needs of Atlantic Canada’s future workforce and/or to support economic growth in the region?

A: We have a track record of developing unique programs that address evolving needs. These programs are developed through a very consultative approach. Students and faculty participate in program development with the input of industry, government, NGO partners, and leading experts from around the world. Our external partners provide a very sound ‘reality check’ in terms of needs they are experiencing, trends that are emerging, and skill gaps that are becoming more apparent. They are also extremely candid in terms of their feedback on our ideas and their expectations as future employers of our students or as education and research partners. As a University supported by taxpayers and student tuition, we feel a very strong responsibility to ensure our programs anticipate and address the needs of local and global communities.

This approach has been used to develop UPEI’s Sustainable Design Engineering program, a new doctoral program in Psychology that focuses on cross-cultural competencies, the UPEI School of Applied Climate Change and Adaptation, Applied Communication, Culture, and Leadership program, and new streams within the School of Mathematical and Computational Sciences, including Data Analytics and Actuarial Science.

The common thread of every UPEI program is hands-on learning that complements high quality traditional educational experiences. For example, our Sustainable Design Engineering students work with clients from day one of the program, developing sustainable solutions for real-world problems. This approach has been extremely successful. Students have not only been able to line up employment before graduation but also travel the world to work with clients on a range of products, services, processes, and ideas. We also have students in the program who have started their own companies and have patents, which is quite remarkable.

Q. What role do you see UPEI and other universities playing in the future economic growth of Atlantic Canada?

A: I see us as a direct and indirect contributor to the economies of PEI and the region. As a University we are a major employer. We are a significant contributor to the GDP. Our direct expenditures support many businesses and supply chains. As the only university in Prince Edward Island, we also play a critical role in supplying skilled talent to the Island’s labour market, generating population growth, and we are a key catalyst for research and development activities.

In supporting the future economic growth of our region, the first thing I would suggest is that all universities have a mission to encourage and support lifelong learning. With rapidly evolving industry and workforce needs, continually upgrading one’s knowledge and skills within a global context is the new norm and will only increase in importance.

Secondly, I believe we must demonstrate the power of collaboration. Our University is committed to developing students and graduates who are collaborative problem solvers. The issues facing our local and global communities are complex and multilayered, which means no one person or discipline can solve them. The ability to work together to deconstruct challenges and build sustainable solutions is not a future need. It is required now if we are to have healthy communities in the future.

Our strategy for contributing to future economic growth and needs is not based on development of a particular program or area of skill. We want to foster the broad competencies necessary for lifelong learning within the context of the changes we are seeing globally, and that drives our efforts to build education for a connected world and inclusive communities. This means exceptional programs that are strongly rooted in project- and inquiry-based approaches to learning. It also means being committed to working at the speed of business to enable new and timely opportunities for our stakeholders.

Q. What do you predict will be the defining changes in Atlantic Canada’s workforce or economic landscape over the next five to 10 years?

A: I believe rapid technology changes, the need to look at all our operations, products, and solutions through a lens of sustainability, and global interaction will continue to increase. Specific workforce changes are difficult to predict. However, UPEI highly values the impact that critical and creative thinking, global awareness, and the ability to effectively analyze and communicate data will have in navigating evolving labour markets and expectations.

The ability to better understand increasingly complex systems—and the direct and indirect impacts of these systems—will be essential to unlock productivity and sustainable solutions. A prime example of this is our health care system. Given our aging population and demographic shifts, the management of our system, and the significant portion of provincial resources dedicated to it, is vital to the health of our populations and economy, and the overall well-being of our communities. The incredible need for access to health services—including mental health services—must be addressed if we are to fully reach our potential as individuals and a region.

For these reasons, our focus at UPEI remains the same as always: developing students to their full potential so they are ready to participate and succeed in a shifting landscape.

About Atlantic Leader Insights

Atlantic Canada’s economy is fueled by a diverse array of private and public sector entities that employ thousands of people and contribute to our region’s growth and prosperity. But how are these organizations optimizing the potential of their people, and what insights have they gained about the future of our economy from their innovative initiatives?

KBRS recognizes the critical importance of attracting, developing, and retaining inspiring leaders and top talent within Atlantic Canada. We sat down with leaders at several high-impact Atlantic Canadian organizations to talk about our region’s opportunities and challenges. This article is one in a series that aims to collect these leaders’ insights on how we can enhance our economic outlook by strengthening our workforce.

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Anna Stuart
Anna Stuart , MBA, FCPA, FCMA, FCMC
Senior Associate
Anna is a Senior Associate at KBRS and leads the firm's national academic executive search practice and our Atlantic Canadian executive search practice. With more than 20 years of experience leading executive searches, coaching and advising leaders in the university, college, independent school, health and public sectors across Canada, Anna has established a strong reputation for helping organizations and individuals to realize their goals.