A few months ago, I was in a discussion with a number of colleagues about how one should go about measuring how well universities and colleges prepare students for the labour market. It’s a tough question to answer.
Employment rates aren’t helpful because those move with the economic cycle (and in places like Alberta with tight labour markets, low unemployment might be more of a sign of desperation for warm bodies than it is of educational quality). Employer satisfaction surveys are tough to interpret because a) the respondent doesn’t always know a particular employee, and b) these surveys never disaggregate the responses of employers in areas which are related and unrelated to the field of study, which means there is a lot of valuable information being lost. Subject matriculation tests are obviously out.
So what to do?
I don’t think there’s any choice but to rely on input from employers in some form. I mean, at the end of the day, you have to assume they know something about whether their workers are getting the job done or not.
Where I think current employer surveys go wrong is in trying to establish what employers think of each individual graduate so as to rate the outputs of individual college or university programs. This, frankly, is nuts. Major curricular differences between programs at different institutions these days aren’t all that common. Differences between individuals are as likely to be due to innate qualities and personal characteristics as they are to the instruction received.
Anyways, it occurred to me that surely what matters most from a public policy perspective is whether the system as a whole is producing graduates that meet the needs of employers. So why not ask employers that question instead of the whole present rigamarole?
But – and this is crucial – let’s not ask whether employers are “satisfied” with the skills new graduates bring to the workplace. That’s actually a very hard question to interpret (are they saying “satisfied” because they are polite and Canadian? Are they saying “dissatisfied” because they have inflated expectations of the amount of job-specific skills graduates should have?). Instead, let’s ask them, “Are the recent college/university graduates you hired this year better or worse than the ones you hired five years ago?”
This is a nice simple question that gets to the heart of the issue. You’d know right away whether engineering firms thought that engineering education as a whole was keeping up with the times or not. Or child care centres, or accounting firms or the public service.
That’s what matters. That’s the major reason we fund education so heavily. Yet it’s not a question we regularly pose. Time for a change.