Thomas Lemieux

HR-Thomas Lemieux-15

Thomas Lemieux is currently the director of the Vancouver School of Economics, a position he took over in 2014. He was born in Quebec City and obtained his Ph.D. from Princeton University. He taught at MIT and the Université de Montréal before coming to UBC in 1999. Most of his recent research revolves around the issue of earnings inequality in Canada and other countries. As a result, he is definitely a good resource for students trying to figure out where their university career will take them. Since becoming director of the school, Thomas has made it a priority to create a real community around VSE, being involved with many student events throughout the year.

I think, looking at the census data we were analyzing, the first thing that needs to be said is that Canada’s one percent really are a diverse group of people. Yes, there are the CEOs, the top earners in the finance sector, the high paid medical specialists, but these categories each represent about 10% of the people who are in the top 1%. Beyond that it really is a mix. One thing we tend to see validated is the idea that education pays off: it’s essentially true. Most of the earners in the top 1% have at least an undergraduate degree. As we look across regions we see of course a large group of high earners in the Alberta oil sector, though given recent events perhaps their number will decrease over time.

It is really encouraging that despite there being a few of what we’ll call the ‘prime suspects,’ there is a diverse mix of occupations represented in this group. Something that is not so encouraging is the amount of women who earn in the top 1%. Approximately 80% of this group is still men and this gender gap really is a concerning part of the story of Canadian inequality.

I think next, collaborating with Nicole Fortin, I will try to delve deeper into this gender gap in earnings. Particularly looking at why it is taking so long to shrink? It really is concerning, especially among those in the top 1%. It is true, the gap is narrowing, but very slowly, particularly considering women are now actually more educated than men on average. For this project I’m looking at putting together some new datasets with Stats Canada to better answer these questions, looking again at the Canadian story.

Generally, the biggest change since I started in the late 80s is that now there is way more and way better access to data and analytical tools. Back when I started we had a few useful surveys to pull data from, but they were much smaller samples than now. It’s funny to show students today what wasn’t possible to measure in the 80s. Back then we’d have to estimate certain effects, speculate more. Now you just plug your massive datasets into your computer and you’re ready to go.

I think my story is relatively similar to many people who choose to study economics. In high school I was good at science, particularly math and physics, and after I graduated I enrolled in an engineering program. At the end of my first year I realized I didn’t find the material all that fulfilling. I had a friend who was studying economics and got me interested in trying it out, I liked the questions it addressed. I think it’s really just a question of taste – I was interested in developing and using my quantitative skills but not in the natural sciences.

I think I am a good example of what you see when you look at intergenerational data of the labour force. My father was a political science professor, and I definitely think that had an impact on me entering academia. I suppose as a kid you grow up in an environment where you become more familiar with certain professions and this influences us all. I don’t think it was until my last year of my undergraduate degree that I really knew I wanted to be a researcher though, that was the year I realized I wanted to complete my PhD.

Well I think first it’s important to consider long run historical changes. A hundred years ago half of the labour force was in the agricultural sector in Canada. Since then there has been a massive shift towards manufacturing jobs, and more recently a shift away from these manufacturing jobs. Now, as always, it’s hard to see what the typical jobs of the future will be.

One thing I can say for sure that should encourage economics students is that there seems to be lots of demand right now for workers with quantitative skills with an understanding of how data translates from the real world. Right now it seems there are a lot of businesses swimming in data they want to leverage. For this reason, I see the skills taught in economics degrees to be incredibly applicable right now, and I imaging this labour demand will continue over time. Of course location also plays a big role in the job market, there tends to be differences in the jobs available in Vancouver or Toronto for instance, though I think we see these sectoral shifts happening in lots of places.

I think that’s an interesting question. It’s certainly one of the motivations behind us establishing the BIE program and the career centre here at VSE, so that we can experiment and try new things. I think that now universities are certainly more aware of the importance of the need to augment traditional education with some soft skills and experience to help students succeed post graduation. It’s funny, sometimes our research on the labour market leads to useful conclusions for students and how to help them succeed in the job market. So I think while it’s helpful for the university to try new things I think it’s also useful to stick to our guns and continue to expose students to the forefront of the research. I think another important thing to acknowledge is that students are not blind to the changes in the job market. The rise in enrollment in economics and computer science programs is definitely showing this. Students are smart. Of course, we do not attend university simply to go out and get a job after, it is about providing a holistic experience, and this is why universities must keep in mind their role.

To me one of the most important things is that now faculty, staff, graduate students and undergraduate students alike are now under one roof. It is more than a logistical change. We used to be disconnected, the faculty offices, classrooms, career centre, student lounges, the BIE program, they were all in different places. Being all in the same location helps people to connect, and I think this is really something we need to nurture. On this subject, Google has recently conducted some very in-depth studies on the benefits of the water cooler as a meeting place for ideas. Similar to this, I think putting everyone in the same place will help the mixing of ideas through physical proximity. It’s hard to pin down the value of this, as economists really like to do, but it is really valuable in my opinion. I think it really comes down to expanding on this vision of us as a school, not a department. We continue to expand and grow as an entity, and I think that this is something that we will definitely continue to strive to improve in the future. It’s important too that this community not dissolve after graduation, but that we create something lasting for students and faculty.

I really like to stay active, running and cycling. One of my favourite events of the year is the Vancouver Sun Run, a ten kilometer race. For the last few years I’ve run with a team of VSE graduate students, I really enjoy doing that.