Bridging the skills gap towards the 21st-century workforce

Employment-linked education has most promise

The “skills gap” — meaning jobs without people and people without jobs — continues to dominate discussions among policymakers and employers. How do we ensure Canada has the skills it needs to thrive in the 21st century, particularly at a time when disruptive technologies and shifting markets are expected to put many jobs at risk?

“How do you plan when you cannot predict?” is a question that has preoccupied many of those working on labour market and training issues. One big question is always: Where will the jobs be? What regions, what sectors, what levels? 

The “talent gap” is often shaped by regional or sectoral forces but it is multifaceted. For many young people, the future appears grim. Unemployment rates, particularly in large urban centres, are high and unemployment among youth with challenges — such as Aboriginal youth or those with disabilities — is much higher. 

And while the average immigrant has a higher level of education than the average Canadian-born worker, they also have higher rates of unemployment and underemployment. The domestic market cannot meet the needs of the high-tech sector for highly skilled computer scientists and engineers.

But this issue is not just about entry level positions. Long-time employees are quaking in their boots as even well-established companies implement massive layoffs in efforts to redefine themselves at the very same time many companies are screaming for seasoned middle managers. 

And as the boomers retire, the problem will only worsen. No matter how clever, well-trained and technologically savvy a new graduate may be, he cannot easily replace someone with years of experience building and leading teams. 

Defining skills
Part of the problem lies with the way in which jobs and skills are defined. There is little doubt, for example, that the assessment of the career readiness and skills of recent university graduates differs depending on whom you talk to. One study undertaken by the Diversity Institute that examined the perspectives of 193 Ontario employers and 204 recent graduates showed big gaps in perceptions. While more than 90 per cent of the graduates believed they were highly proficient in oral communication, only 48 per cent of employers agreed. Even more — 93 per cent — claimed to be highly proficient in written communication skills compared to only 39 per cent of employers. 

There were comparable gaps in: the assessment of ability to learn on the job; proficiency with Microsoft office; and proficiency with MS Excel and ethics ability.

Part of the challenge appears to be the way in which graduates and employers define these skills. Social sciences and humanities graduates think they have excellent written communication skills because they can write academic papers, but employers are looking for very different skills. In one context, length, complexity and nuance are valued — in the other, brevity, conciseness and clarity win the day. 

Employment-linked education
What has the most promise, and requires the full engagement of employers, is employment-linked education. Without question, traditional co-op and experiential learning opportunities help embed this in degree programs, but more is needed to be able to offer flexible and timely training and experiences that can offer just-in-time skills and experience layered onto a solid foundation that a university degree provides. 

Intensive boot camps coupled with paid internships have proven effective for a range of needs. While a four-month program in coding or systems analysis will never replace a four-year computer science degree, it is sufficient for many roles that require in-demand technological skills. Turning a smart, articulate English graduate into a social media wizard does not require years of additional education but some targeted skills and, more importantly, an opportunity to apply them in a real world environment. 

Bridging programs for immigrants, including internships, are intensive and expensive but they pay off big time in helping people enter the workforce and advance. And providing talent to help small businesses ramp up for new global technology environments is critical to sustain growth. 

Post-secondary institutions know they cannot do it alone and are increasingly trying to partner with others. Employers that do their share reap the benefits — those who actively recruit summer and co-op students report they often account for up to 50 per cent of entry level hires. 

New approaches
Post-secondary institutions are changing but they need to do more. While there are many proponents of radical new approaches and models enabled by technology, these remain, after more than 30 years, peripheral. The majority of university classes are still taught the way they were taught 30 years ago or even 300 years ago, with someone talking and a lot of people listening (or pretending to listen).

Too often, discussions around these issues are simple-minded and dichotomous. Bridging these gaps requires innovative, new approaches to how employers and post-secondary institutions think and work together, along with agencies addressing specific employment and training needs. The answer to complex problems is seldom found in simple solutions. 

Because of the difficulties in predicting exactly where the jobs will be and the notoriously long planning cycles associated with developing and implementing new degree or even certificate programs, there is a significant risk that by the time the graduates appear, the jobs that were in demand are filled and new, urgent needs have emerged. 

Just doing what employers say we should do may be based on good intentions but poor information. While science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines are important, so are the social sciences and humanities. While engineers and computers scientists enjoy high employment rates, science graduates have unemployment rates that approach those for social science and humanities graduates. 

More importantly, the ability to create and build new technology only creates innovation if someone actually uses it — so understanding consumer and organizational behaviour, policy and ethical issues cannot be ignored.

Similarly, the debate about colleges versus universities needs to shift to colleges and universities. It’s just silly to suggest that one or the other is the solution to all that ails us. And pointing a finger upstream to the elementary schools system is not helpful without concrete suggestions about how to better link them to post-secondary institutions and other training opportunities.

The key elements of an effective strategy are clear:

  Credible and triangulated labour market information — we may not know where the market will go but we need to know what we do and do not know. This includes not just supply and demand information but who does what mapping of programs and services.

  A systems approach that promotes working together to solve real problems rather than just talking about them. Of particular importance is building the right combination of high-quality, in-depth education and short-term intensive training with the ability to respond quickly to changing markets without slavishly following them. And more sharing — of courses, of credits, of approaches to prior learning assessment. At least at the provincial level, publicly funded institutions and programs need to work more effectively together. And working more closely with employers while preserving the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is critically important.

  More collaborative programs and sharing among institutions. Building on existing platforms, there are opportunities to retain quality while being more flexible, whether in terms of crediting mature students for experience, sharing courses or crossing disciplines through experience-linked learning, internships and other opportunities.

  The effective matching of jobseekers and jobs — current processes are highly fragmented. A collaboration between the Ontario Chamber of Commerce and Ryerson University — Magnet  — is an example of an advanced technology platform that helps employers find jobseekers who match their needs and helps jobseekers find positions mapped to their skills.

  The application of innovation models to education and training and better sharing of approaches that work as well as curriculum. This does not mean just technology or an online course — programs need to be designed around learning outcomes, whether it’s Shakespearean or Ruby on Rails programming. Too often, we do unto students as was done unto us without thinking about why or how we are doing it. It’s about trying new things and new approaches and evaluating them — knowing they may fail.

  Outcome and performance tracking and metrics based on a nuanced understanding of how key performance indicators (KPIs) can also produce distortions and unintended consequences.

  Looking upstream to ensure elementary and secondary students have the literacies needed to provide maximum choice and opportunities. English, mathematics and technology are the foundational skills — as well as access to the information and counselling they need to succeed. Socioeconomic factors have an enormous impact on the opportunities provided to young people and we need to level the playing field.

Wendy Cukier is vice-president of research and innovation at Ryerson University in Toronto. She can be reached at (416) 979-5000 ext. 6740 or [email protected]

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