Teaching Transferable Skills for Labour Market Success: Introducing HEQCO’s Skills Consortium

Having identified essential transferable skills (and how to measure them) in previous work, HEQCO sought to investigate the most effective ways of teaching them. To do so, we partnered with eight PSE institutions to form a Skills Consortium, designed to evaluate programs and interventions related to the acquisition, development and articulation of transferable skills — the aptitudes that stand to improve labour market outcomes for Ontario graduates.

Authors: Nia Spooner, Lena Balata and Alexandra MacFarlane

Recent announcements of labour shortages across the country reveal that Canada is facing an increase in “unfilled skills demand” — a skills gap (or “unrealized value”) representing $25 billion in 2020, or 1.33% of our GDP (Conference Board of Canada, 2022). While it is difficult to predict every job-specific skill students will require upon graduation — especially as many graduates find themselves working in vastly different careers or sectors than originally planned — a core set of transferable skills is essential for closing our national skills gap and for our collective prosperity (for example, differences in literacy skills are the most important determinant of economic growth across countries).

Today’s employers lead the demand for skilled hires, requiring “talented graduates capable of rapidly acquiring a comprehensive mix of skills” (Business Council of Canada, 2018). In 2022, Mitacs reported that employers expect new recruits to showcase creativity, problem solving, relationship building, communication, and basic digital literacy skills. Similarly, the Social Research and Demonstration Corporation (SRDC) identified reading, writing, numeracy, digital skills, communication, collaboration, problem solving, adaptability, and creativity and innovation as key skills for our modern labour market in their Skills for Success Implementation Guidance Report (2022) and Skills for Success Report (2021).

Recent discourse on skills development also stresses the importance of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) to best support skills development for marginalized groups. The Future Skills Centre’s Readiness and Resilience Report (2022), for example, argues that “skills growth, training, and funding opportunities are critical for Indigenous peoples to advance their careers” and “close the digital skills gap.” Similarly, the SRDC’s Skills for Success Implementation Guidance Report encompasses guiding principles and practices that aim to incorporate the needs of underrepresented groups in the labour market, such as Indigenous people, racialized Canadians, members of the LGBTQ2+ community, newcomers, and people with disabilities.

In response, both the postsecondary sector and government have made considerable investments into programming, internship opportunities and skills training companies. The Ontario government recently announced a partnership with Mitacs, and investment of over $10 million, to provide 2,700 postsecondary students with “high quality research” internships. As part of the federal Global Skills Opportunity Program that funds 110 colleges and universities, Algoma University received $500,000 in funding to support 200 students in their development of problem solving, adaptability, resilience, and intercultural competency skills through participation in international learning opportunities. Similarly, the University of Waterloo, University of Toronto and Queen’s University were recently funded by the Virtual Learning Strategy (VLS) to create course content that helps STEM students develop critical thinking, problem solving and ethical professional practice.

Students themselves identify a gap in their skill development. In the spring of 2018, HEQCO surveyed more than 6,000 Ontario college and university students. Respondents reported that they expect to need transferable skills such as problem solving, organization, teamwork and leadership to a higher degree than they felt these skills were being developed during their studies.

Further, in a recent study on work-integrated learning (forthcoming in 2023), HEQCO found that students and employers have mismatching opinions about student skill development across in-person, remote and hybrid placements. Approximately 80% of students surveyed were satisfied with the development of their critical thinking, interpersonal and program-related technical skills. But only 50% of employers thought that their students had indeed developed these skills.

For several years, HEQCO has worked with Ontario PSE institutions to identify and measure transferable skills. This work engaged sectoral partners to help identify important skills that graduates should possess and, through the Learning Outcomes Assessment Consortium (LOAC), how to reliably measure them. These projects give evidence that transferable skills can indeed be reliably measured using validated methods and tools, which is a first step toward improvement.

Now, we turn our attention to answering the next question: “What are the most effective ways of teaching essential skills?” To do so, we partnered with eight PSE institutions through a competitive RFP process to establish a Skills Consortium designed to explore the range of themes discussed above, including but not limited to projects centred on EDI principles and work-integrated learning opportunities. Working with Centennial College, Fanshawe College, McMaster University (in partnership with University of Toronto: Mississauga and George Brown College), the University of Toronto, the University of Toronto: Mississauga, the University of Waterloo, and the University of Western Ontario, this third phase of our research evaluates programs or interventions related to the acquisition, development and articulation of transferable skills for Ontario graduates across a broad range of programs.

Over the course of the next several months, HEQCO will release relevant updates on our progress. For now, readers can explore project descriptions on the dedicated Skills Consortium webpage. Readers can also view or download a PDF Interim Report, showcasing the project scope, courses and interventions, research questions, methodologies — and more — of the seven projects. Our final publications will include a public-facing report that analyzes the educational approaches and targeted innovations, measuring both success and barriers to instilling the transferable skills students need to thrive in Ontario’s changing economy.

For more information on this project, contact Project Director Alexandra Macfarlane at amacfarlane@heqco.ca or Project Lead Lena Balata at lbalata@heqco.ca.

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