Martin Hicks – The alchemist’s dream

Just tell me, please, where the jobs of the future will be.  Then those working in higher education can plan accordingly, adjust the credential and programming mix, and drive students into the right programs.  Actually students won’t need driving, because they will surely make superior choices and not continue to stumble into the humanities or other dead ends.  And employers, well they will finally rest easy because their quest for precisely the right skills at the right time and in the right place will be satisfied.

Let’s be clear: there must be a list, somewhere.  We know there are looming job shortages, like not enough engineers and tradespeople, because we’ve read all about it.  We know there are skill surpluses because we’ve seen interviews with newly minted teachers who can’t get teaching jobs.  And today is just the thin edge of a broadening wedge; we hear that the future will be crowded with jobless people, sadly unqualified for jobs that sit unfilled.  So bring out the list please and let’s get to it.  It’s irresponsible to keep it hidden away.

Or is the quest for that list of tomorrow’s high-demand jobs and job specific skills an alchemist’s dream?  What if the truth is — as we also read and hear — that the majority of jobs of the future have not yet been invented?  What if the one thing we do know about the future is that it is unknown and unknowable?

We could still measure current shortages.  There are data from employers on who has difficulty filling what kinds of jobs.  There are data from graduates on which college and university programs do not lead to jobs related to their studies.  We would simply extrapolate into the future.  Surely that would be better than doing nothing at all?

Let’s look at the record.  Beginning in 1999, Ontario poured $70M annually into expanding computer science and electronic engineering enrolments, in response to the IT sector’s warnings about critical worker shortages in an industry expanding exponentially.  The bubble burst the following year, and tech jobs are only now recovering to pre-bubble levels.

In 1993, the Ontario government reduced university medical school enrolments in response to analyses that suggested this would help curb runaway growth in health care costs.  It takes six to ten years to train a doctor and the resultant dip in new docs coincided with a series of urgent government investments, starting in 2000, to increase medical school enrolments in light of physician shortages.

Starting in 2000, the Ontario government funded a multi-year expansion of teacher spaces in the face of forecasted shortages.  It recently slashed the number of new spaces by half to deal with a persistent oversupply.

These were considerable and carefully considered investments, made with the best data available.  In two of the cases (doctors and teachers) government controlled both the labour market demand side (it pays for doctors’ services) and the supply side (it pays for university medical school enrolments).  Did these folk all do a shoddy job, or were they chasing the impossible?

Likely the latter.  Data on current job shortages at any moment in time do not translate well into predicting future graduate demand at the credential or field/discipline level.  Even if they did, the timeframe for retooling and producing the better mix of grads is measured in years, by which time the market has shifted again.  And if all that worked, there is the small matter of college and university applicants exercising free choice and chasing their dreams, even when armed with the most detailed of data.

I am not saying we should not give up on better equipping our graduate labour force for the future.  Whatever other goals and purposes there are to higher education, and there are many, a real labour market advantage is one.  Graduates want job access and success.  The labour market needs skilled talent.  The government wants to drive economic performance.  Postsecondary institutions look to new ways of delivering on these needs.

But if precise job and skill forecasting does not work, let’s try something else.  Let’s embrace the notion that we predict and meet the detailed job specs and volumes of the future very badly.  Let’s equip graduates for that very fact.

Discipline-specific skills that dovetail with employer needs are important, but are not bullet proof over the long term.  Equally and often more necessary are basic and higher order cognitive skills (numeracy, literacy, problem solving, critical thinking, communication), transferable life skills (confidence, persistence, resilience, time management), and even disciplinary breadth.  These skills will never be obsolete and will never be mismatched.  Moreover, they equip graduates to learn and relearn disciplinary or job-specific skills and knowledge, over decades, over career changes, as the economy evolves, as new technologies bury old ones.  This is future proofing. HEQCO’s razor focus on learning outcomes is as much about meeting future labour market demand and preventing skills shortages as it is about improving quality.

What would this look like?  Colleges and universities would deliver on and assess for a balanced set of learning outcomes, in the categories of discipline-specific skills, basic and advanced cognitive skills and transferable life skills.  Students would exercise responsibility to seek a broad and complete educational experience.  If you are a trades student, are you taking a liberal arts elective?  If a humanities student, are you throwing in some math or science?  Employers would welcome well rounded graduates, but would also assume greater responsibility for equipping them with the granular skills of their particular office environment, shop floor or technological toolset.

And then if we couldn’t foresee the next wave of job upheaval, that’d be all right.

-Martin Hicks, Executive Director, Data & Statistics

2 replies on “Martin Hicks – The alchemist’s dream”

The Australian federal government cut enrolment in medical programs in 1995 for the same reason (DEET, 1996: 16) and with the same result. But the Australian Government was tardy to correct its mistake so the State governments compensated by recruiting large numbers of physicians trained overseas, mostly by developing countries at their expense.

DEET (1996) Higher education funding report for the 1996-98 triennium, 8 January

The Quebec Cegep system is doing exactly what you recommend: competency-based learning with strong humanties and language requirements. I hope that others see their example, and that the current system is not hobbled by a STEM over-emphasis…

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