I have been reading and hearing a lot about the “skills gap” in Canada, particularly the suggestion of significant shortages of people with the skill set to fulfill the jobs available in today’s labour markets. This discussion is often accompanied by commentary about the misalignment between what students learn in postsecondary programs and the requirements of these jobs.
I’ll admit that I am confused. It seems to me that there are several important issues being bundled together in this conversation and, as a result, it is not clear how to think about what often appears to be contradictory opinions, evidence and proposed solutions. This confusion of issues also makes it difficult to imagine effective solutions. If I learned one thing in graduate school, it was that the first step in solving a problem is being sure you have framed and asked the right question.
To my mind, the skills gap question really involves a discussion about three different classes of jobs.
The first are jobs for which the skill set required is well articulated and understood because the professions themselves have identified them, require that they be incorporated into the postsecondary programs and, through an accreditation process, are assured that these skills are being taught and learned. These jobs include the trades – welders, pipe fitters, electricians, plumbers, etc. – and the regulated professions – nursing, doctors and engineers, etc.
We know which postsecondary institutions are responsible to produce the workers for these jobs. Typically, we look to the colleges for workers in the trades, medical schools for doctors, schools of engineering for engineers, etc. Frankly, if we do not have enough of these workers we just have to increase the capacity and outflow from these pipelines, which may require some additional targeted funding. In the case of the trades we may have to overcome some cultural barriers to the willingness of students to enter these professions. And, we may wish to examine how streamlined and efficient these training programs are. But for these jobs, the solution to any worker shortage seems quite straight forward and a relatively easy fix, especially if we start before the shortage actually occurs (and, yes, I do appreciate the difficulties of predicting future labour markets).
The second type of job is where there is greater confusion and angst. These are a whole host of jobs where the knowledge and skill sets required are not adequately specified. For example, I read a comment from someone recently who was lamenting the dearth of people prepared in Canada for jobs in “international trade” (this observation was accompanied by the usual predictions of the dire consequences of this “skills shortage”). But, what are the knowledge bases, skills and capacities required of people in the international trade sector? Similarly, what are the skills required of those who will work in retail, government, manufacturing, small businesses, or the various service industries? It just stands to reason that we cannot fix the skills gap until we are remarkably articulate about knowledge and skills necessary for these various jobs. This is a discussion that must be led by employers. And, speaking in job categories does not suffice – we need to identify the skills needed, not list the job titles.
Once this is done, the issue becomes whether postsecondary programs are graduating students with the required knowledge and skill sets.
Typically, when industry talks about the skills needed for these types of jobs they acknowledge that graduates often have the necessary disciplinary knowledge. What they supposedly lack is a set of general learning and cognitive skills – such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication skills, numeracy, teamwork and time management skills. The good news is that more institutions are now attending to the challenge of measuring whether these general learning and cognitive skills (sometimes called essential employability skills or transferable skills) have been acquired and they are developing credentials that will verify, for student and employer, that these skills are present.
This is the kind of alignment between jobs and higher education that can solve the labour market challenges we believe we are facing. Industry better defines the knowledge and skill sets required in particular jobs and postsecondary institutions do a better job of measuring whether these knowledge and skill sets are present.
The third jobs/skills issue is more arcane, but one that may be the most significant in terms of the future structure and competitiveness of Canada’s economy. This is the question of whether our education system is producing individuals who will create new industries, workplaces and jobs for other people? This is where we start to consider postsecondary programs that attempt to promote creativity, entrepreneurship and innovation. The question of how to enhance entrepreneurship and innovation in Canadians, and thereby to presumably increase the productivity of Canada’s economy, is a difficult problem. There are those who advocate for special programs or pedagogical techniques to teach entrepreneurship or innovation; many institutions, especially in business schools, are experimenting with new programs and practices to foster these skills. Others suggest that these skills and attributes cannot be taught – they are simply part of one’s DNA. I don’t know which of these views is correct. But, I am pretty sure that this is a qualitatively different problem than the other two skill-shortage discussions. I also know that we can experiment with how to teach entrepreneurship and, especially, how we can evaluate whether these programs are effective. This is an important problem worthy of serious study and may well be a motivator of considerable research.
Blustering about a “skills gap” is neither a sophisticated question nor one that leads readily to an answer. By parcelling up the skills gap challenge into the class of problems discussed above, the path to solutions seems more obvious, and the contribution of postsecondary institutions to those solutions more clear.
Thanks for reading.