Bridging gap between employers, gen Y (Guest commentary)

Post-secondary institutions play critical role as ‘mutual mediator’ between groups

Hiring managers face a perplexing set of challenges. The economy is changing, talented labour is growing scarcer and customer service demands continue to rise. Employers need individuals who are not only energetic and skilled but are equally adept at communicating clearly, working in teams, understanding the principles of customer service and being culturally aware.

It is, therefore, critical these skills be effectively incorporated into post-secondary education programs to ensure the success of our collective economic performance.

The urgency with which we must address these challenges is based on fact. Eighty-three per cent of employers believe all or some entry-level jobs are already knowledge-based, while only 16 per cent of generation Y believe the shift to the knowledge-based economy has taken place, according to a study by George Brown College in Toronto. Only five per cent of generation Y identify customer service skills as the most important skills to employers when hiring a recent graduate and only 20 per cent identify communication skills as essential, found the study.

This is not simply a generational divide. The disparity between these groups is rooted in a host of factors, not least of which are the unique characteristics of generation Y, who are technologically focused, unusually confident and hold high expectations for their future employers. Though highly ambitious and well-educated, many gen-Y graduates have little understanding of what their employers’ expectations are of them and have taken little notice of the economic changes occurring around them — including the realities of the knowledge economy.

This divide will only continue to grow unless a natural and mutual mediator can bring these two important demographics together to better understand how to meet each other’s needs. This role is increasingly being played by colleges such as George Brown. We have close and ever-evolving relationships with students and employers alike. The students who fill our halls and classrooms offer an up-close-and-personal glimpse into the shifting perspectives of a new generation.

At the same time, George Brown works closely with employers to ensure students are offered programs and work-placement opportunities that reflect employers’ needs and ensure they are equipped with the necessary skills to respond to the realities of a knowledge-based economy.

Through these field placements and co-op opportunities, students better understand the complexities of workplace dynamics and the importance of communication and teamwork. They learn success in the working world means more than completing a task — it also means finding ways to do things better, faster, smarter in a manner that allows everyone involved to apply their talents. Such placements will help students truly be “workplace-ready” when they graduate.

These benefits are as valuable to a traditional student coming out of high school as they are to older, foreign-trained newcomers who will make up a substantial percentage of workforce growth in the coming years. Many of these talented workers have traditionally found themselves forced to take on jobs well below their skill level after the age-old challenge — being unable to find meaningful employment without Canadian experience and being unable to acquire Canadian experience without meaningful employment.

Here too, colleges have taken a lead role in establishing industry-specific English-as-a-second language (ESL) courses and programs designed specifically for those with existing credentials. These post-secondary training opportunities help immigrants expedite their entry into the workforce and hit the ground running.

The workplace of the future will be one of collaboration and multi-tiered communication. It will be a place that is lateral in nature where employees work across disciplines with less emphasis on hierarchy. A cross-disciplinary approach to the future workplace is already being seen in many industries. This not only provides for a greater breadth of opportunity and knowledge, but implements a greater diversity of skill sets, backgrounds and experiences to enhance the quality of work and overall innovation.

Despite the clear gap between employers and younger workers, there is much to look forward to in the future. Only by ensuring mutual co-operation among higher education and employers, teachers and students, students and employers, and employers and employees, can we eliminate the disparity that currently exists.

Anne Sado is president of George Brown College in Toronto.

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