Every year, 3,000 youth in our city don’t finish high school on time. When I share that statistic with people in our community, they often can’t believe it. I see why.
We live in a prosperous city and province with one of the best education systems in the world, and yet Alberta has one of the lowest graduation rates in Canada, at 74 per cent. This is just unacceptable.
It’s tempting look at these students and say, “That’s their choice,” or “That’s because there are jobs,” and move on. However, this affects all of us, and if we don’t tackle this issue we will all end up paying for it – literally. This is an expensive problem that threatens our city’s economic and social future.
Consider this. The estimated annual cost to society per high school dropout is nearly $16,000. This number is tied to earning loss, use of social assistance, health care, crime and tax revenue loss. That’s not $16,000 once – it’s $16,000 per year for the rest of that student’s life.
Multiply that by 3,000, and you have a cost to society of $48 million per year in Calgary alone.
Meanwhile, we are seeing incredible demand for skilled workers on the horizon. According to one estimate, Canada could face a shortage of one million tradespeople by 2020 as baby boomers retire.
The need is immense. A recent Calgary Economic Development study predicts that by 2020, demand for workers in this city is expected to increase by almost 190,000 jobs.
You can see a major disconnect here. We are seeing young people leaving school at a time when educated workers are crucial to our economy. We can’t afford to ignore this disconnect any longer.
As a city, we face an urgent choice about our future.
Imagine two cities. In the first Calgary, a decade from now, this problem still hasn’t been addressed. Grad rates are still low. Career possibilities abound, but there are too few people to access these opportunities, because they have not completed high school. As a result, this city has thousands of jobs without people. It also has thousands of people without jobs.
In this Calgary, the economy stalls for want of skilled workers. Residents feel disconnected, disempowered. They have no hope. Social issues abound.
In the second Calgary, things are much different. People and organizations have come together to make high school completion and further education a top priority. There are thousands of jobs here, as in the first city – but here we have people with the education to plug into these jobs and create healthy, prosperous lives for themselves and their families.
Picture this Calgary as a grid of opportunities. Here, everyone is connected and contributing to the grid. People are positive and happy. The city is flourishing and other cities to look to it as a model of excellence.
I know which Calgary I want to live in but no organization can make this happen alone. Isolated solutions have not moved the needle on this issue. We need a city-wide movement. We need everyone to come together around our kids. We all have a role to play in maximizing the potential of the next generation.
If we don’t take this on, we’re stuck contending with difficult and costly social issues down the road. It’s not worth it.
As a city we can do better. We will do better. I often tell people that if it can’t be done in Calgary, it can’t be done anywhere.
By tackling this together, we can build a city that’s great for everyone.
Lucy Miller is President and CEO of United Way of Calgary and Area.
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This post originally ran in the Calgary Herald as an op-ed.