Improving the Discourse on Skills and Education

Recently, I did a fascinating set of roundtable discussions with employers and employer associations, and it brought home to me how one-dimensional much of our talk is regarding skills.

Broadly speaking, there are four sets of skills employers care about.  The first are job- or occupation-related skills: can a mechanic actually fix a car? Can an architect design buildings? And so on.  By and large, if you ask employers whether universities and colleges are successfully providing their graduates with this skill set, they say yes (in some fields, in some parts of the country, there are complaints that there aren’t enough graduates, but that’s a different story).  And that’s true more or less across blue-collar and white-collar occupations.

Then there’s a set of skills that, in Canada, go by the name: “essential skills” or “foundational skills”.  Most of this is basic literacy/numeracy stuff, but with communication, basic teamwork, and (increasingly) IT skills in there as well.  Here, Canada has a problem, and employers are not shy when it comes to talking about this.  Secondary school dropouts and recent immigrants who have yet to fully master one of our official languages tend to have the most problems with these skills, and the issue is concentrated in certain industries and occupations.  This tends to affect blue-collar jobs more than white-collar ones, but it’s also an issue in lower-level health and social service occupations (especially IT skills).

The third set of skills often gets called “soft-skills” or “integrative skills”.  This involves workplace savvy, primarily in white-collar industries: knowing how to act with clients, basic business and financial skills, how to operate in a multi-disciplinary/multi-functional team, and those somewhat nebulous qualities of critical thinking and problem-solving.  Basically, this is the stuff that Arts faculties claim to give you: the integrative thinking skills that keep businesses running.  They’re not the skills that get you hired, but they’re the skills that get you promoted.  Again, this is an area where employers who need these skills voice frustration with new graduates.

Finally, there are what get termed “leadership skills”.  It’s not always 100% clear what employers mean by this, but it usually is thought of as being different (and of a higher order) than the integrative thinking skills.  Again, this isn’t desired across the board: companies are hierarchies, and not everyone is at the top, so it’s actually a set of traits necessary in only a few.  But again, companies see these as lacking in young people, though, to be honest, young grads don’t have the experience to be put in leadership roles, and so it’s actually something they’ll need to a few years into their careers.

Now, when someone in business starts talking about a skills crisis, we mostly assume they mean that their new hires are lacking some set of skills, and lots of people (some of them inside the system itself) therefore use this as a stick with which to beat educational institutions for not doing their jobs.  But usually, when business says it needs skills, what it actually means is that it needs experienced workers with lots of on-the-job skills.  As such, what educational institutions can contribute in the short-term is pretty marginal.

But even to the extent that institutions can contribute – say, over the medium-to-long term – a simple desire for “more skills” doesn’t help very much.  Skills profiles vary enormously from occupation-to-occupation, and so too do perceptions of which skills are missing in each one.  Even within a single company, needs may vary substantially from one job to the next.  Getting business to be more specific about needs is a huge and urgent task.

Exacerbating this problem is our insistence that programs at different levels of education have to be of common length (mostly 4-year Bachelor’s degrees outside Quebec, mostly 2-year college programs outside Ontario).  For some occupations, this might be too much time in-class; for others it might not be enough.  If you’re running a 2-year program and someone tells you that grads need “more skills”, then the biggest question is: what should be dropped from the existing curriculum?  Forget competency-based education; we’d be a lot better-off if we could just get competency-adjusted curriculum lengths.  But here, governments tend to (unhelpfully) prefer standardized solutions.

Anyways, this is stuff that institutions – particularly community colleges – deal with all the time.  It’s a thankless but necessary job; getting it right is literally the foundation of the nation’s prosperity.

This entry was posted in Assessment.