HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Apprenticeships, Skills & Trades

May 11

Trade-offs in Apprenticeships

I haven’t worked on apprenticeship projects much in the last few years, but one of my current gigs has got me thinking about the area again.  And one thing that I apparently missed completely was a new (well, new to me anyway) effort to harmonize apprenticeship program sequencing nationally (details here).

Wait a minute, you say – weren’t apprenticeships always harmonized?  Isn’t that what Red Seal is all about?

Well, sort of.  Red Seal was about harmonizing outcomes.  Basically, Red Seal was an exam that journeypersons could take after completing their (provincially-governed) training which would certify them as being qualified to ply their trade right across the country.  It was optional – if you had no intention of leaving your home province there wasn’t a whole lot of point in taking the exam because completion of the program was itself sufficient to allow one to practice there.  Red Seal was therefore basically a mobility tool for people who had completed apprenticeships.

Now, that was fine when most apprentices started and completed their training in one province.  But during the resource boom, there was an explosion of apprentices who began training in one province and then moved and wanted to complete training in another.  This created problems because although Red Seal had long since harmonized apprenticeship training outcomes, each province got to those outcomes in quite different ways.  Within the same trade, the number of required hours/weeks of training varied from one province to another, and the sequencing was different.  Something that an electrician learned at level 1 in Alberta wasn’t taught until level 3 in Ontario, something that made things complicated if, for instance, an apprentice level 2 electrician got laid off in Windsor and wanted to try his/her luck in Alberta.

As I say, I’ve been out of this file awhile but what seems to have happened is that the provincial directors of apprenticeship seem to have got together and actually co-ordinated things like training sequencing, number of weeks of in-class training, etc, and this is what they refer to as “harmonization”.  According to that federal website, this harmonization initiative is about halfway done – i.e about half the Red Seal trades were harmonized in 2016 and 2017 and the rest will be rolled out in stages over the next couple of years.

So, a triumph for the Canadian apprenticeship system?  Well, not so fast.

Not all trades programs are apprenticeship programs, but the curriculum still has to line up because everyone wants graduates of pre-employment trades programs to be able to become apprentices in that area.  So what that means is that national harmonization of apprenticeship programs in effect means nationalization of the entire trades curriculum.  And what that means is the effectiveness of all those local industry committees that every community college program has suddenly just got a lot less effective, because significant curriculum changes now have to be negotiated among ten provincial directors of apprenticeships.

Traditionally, those committees have been a point of pride in Canada because they have given trades programs the ability to respond quickly to business needs.  Now, their effectiveness has been traded away in the name not of journeyperson mobility but of apprentice mobility, which was a thing in the resource boom but maybe not so much in the bust.  Is that a smart trade-off?  I suspect the answer varies quite a bit by trade, and yet solution this is being applied uniformly across Red Seal Trades.

We are told “industry” asked for this change, but I really wonder who was part of the consultation.  I can certainly believe that big industry with training efforts in many different provinces asked for it.  I can believe that extractive industries asked for it.  I have a harder time believing that smaller and medium enterprises asked for it because it substantially lowers their ability to affect curriculum and to some degree lowers the values of apprentices to them.

Silver linings have clouds, basically.  And centralized curricula have trade-offs.

March 22

The Next Big Skills Policy Agenda

So today is budget day.  If the papers are anything to go by, there’s something big-ish in there about “skills” which will no doubt be presented as some massive benefit to the country’s middle class (and those trying to join it). I have difficulty imagining what might be announced since most skills policies are in the hands of the provinces.  But what I do know is that skills policy is an area long overdue a makeover.

The labour force is aging.  Any new burst of productivity – essential for rising incomes – is going to have to come from older workers, not newer ones.  Part of that is going to have to come from firms making greater capital investments – that is, better machines and IT infrastructure for workers to use.  But part of it is going to have to come from more intensive and continuous skills upgrading on the part of workers’ themselves.  And this is a problem, because historically Canada has been uniquely bad at achieving a culture of skills upgrading.  Go back year after year, report after report, and it’s the same story: where continuous upgrading is concerned, it tends to be concentrated among people who already have high levels of skills.  Those that have get, those that do not, do not.

Part of the problem here is funding.  That’s why we sometimes see government get interested in handing money either to individuals or to firms (for example, the Canada Jobs Grant) to subsidize training.  But I’d argue that money is at best a partial barrier to more training.  A larger barrier is time.  And a lot of existing institutional practices are as much a hindrance as a help in this regard.

Workers don’t have a lot of spare time.  They have jobs, kids, parents, families: all of which make time a scarce resource.  We don’t normally think of time as something governments can control, but they actually do have a couple of policy levers they could pull, if they wanted to.  First, they could create incentives or entitlements to time-off for the purpose of training/re-training.  This idea was mooted 35 years ago in the Macdonald Commission report as a “Time Bank” – every year, workers would accrue a certain amount of time off specifically for the purpose of training.  It would no doubt be a colossally unpopular move among employers, but is still probably something worth considering (and might not create that much dissension provided it was fairly applied across all workplaces and didn’t create free-rider problems).

But the other way to make more time available to people is to radically re-consider the nature of the credentials being sought.  Universities, God Bless ‘em, have never seen a labour market problem they couldn’t design a 1- or 2-year Master’s Degree to solve.  The problem is a) not everyone wants to do a year of full-time study (or the part-time equivalent over a longer period of time) and b) who really wants to wait until next September to get started if you just got laid off last week?

From an adult learners’ perspective, the best thing in the world would be credentials that are both shorter and continuously available.  The latter can be solved to some extent simply by throwing money at it.  Continuous intake is relatively easy if you have more instructors to teach more classes at different times of the year.  Putting a greater fraction of classes online could conceivably bring some economies of scale that would assist in the process.

But the bigger problem is reducing the length of credentials.  In theory, there is a pretty clear way forward, which are called “stackable credentials”.  Many institutions use some variant of this: thirty credits equals a certificate and once you bunch three certificates together you get an applied degree, or something along those lines.  But even the notion of thirty credits can be kind of off-putting if what you think you need is just a minor skills upgrade. What is needed is a trusted provider (which usually means a non-profit provider) to come up with a way to come up with smaller-duration credentials which actually convey to employers a sense of competency/mastery in particular fields, and which could also combine over time (i.e. “stack”) into more traditional credentials like diplomas and degrees.

What’s the government role in this?  Well, the problem is really one of co-ordination.  Individual campuses can experiment with short credentials or competency-based credentials all they like: if employers don’t understand the credentials, they will be worthless.  What is needed is collective action – someone has to corral institutions to work together to create new credential standards, and someone needs to corral business to talk about what feature they would find most useful in new, shorter credentials.

That may sound like a job for somebody like the Business-Higher Education Roundtable.  But frankly, some coercion is called for here.  My guess is if BHER floated this you’d probably get a few Polytechnics showing up to play (because it’s the kind of thing they do) and no one else.  But government has the muscle and dollars to make this happen a heck of a lot more quickly and efficiently.

Now, note I say “government” and not “the Government of Canada”.  It would be better all around if provincial governments, who constitutionally are the ones in charge in this area, took the lead.  But one could argue that the feds – provide they stay the hell away from directly funding institutions or getting too far into the curriculum weeds themselves – could at least nudge the key players towards the table.

Bottom line: if we want higher labour productivity we have to get much more serious about creating opportunities for workers to upgrade their skills.  Since the key pressure point for skills upgrading is time, we need to create new, shorter pathways to meaningful credentials.  That means shorter, stackable credentials.  These will need to be designed by employers and institutions together, but the quickest way to start this program runs through governments.  And there’s no time like the present to get started.

February 28

The “Not Enough Engineers” Canard

Yesterday I suggested that Ottawa might be as much of the problem in innovation policy as it is the solution.  Today I want to make a much stronger policy claim: that Canada has a uniquely stupid policy discourse on innovation.   And as Exhibit A in this argument I want to present a piece posted over at Policy Options last week.

The article was written by Kat Nejatian, a former staffer to Jason Kenney and now CEO of a payment technology company (OVERCONFIDENT TECH DUDE KLAXON ALERT).  Basically the piece suggests that the whole innovation problem is a function of inputs: not enough venture capital and not enough engineers.  Let me take those two pieces separately.

First comes a claim that Canada’s Venture Capital funding is following further and further behind the United States.  He quotes a blog post from Wellington Financial saying: American venture-capital-backed companies raised US$93.37 per capita in 2006, while in Canada we raised US$45.76 per capita. Nearly a decade later, in 2015, US companies had doubled their performance, raising an average of US$186.23 per capita, while Canadian companies had only inched up to US$49.42.

There are two problems here.  First, these figures are in USD at current exchange rates.  You may remember that 2006 was an extraordinarily good year for the Canadian dollar, and 2015 less so, so this isn’t the best comparison in the world.  Second, they in no way match up with other published data on venture capital as a percentage of GDP.  The reference years are different, but the Conference Board noted that the VC funding as a percentage of GDP grew in Canada from .06 to .1% of GDP between 2009 and 2013, and now stands second in the world only to the US (the US grew from .13% to .18% while all of Europe fell back sharply).  And Richard Florida noted in The Atlantic that in terms of VC funding per capita, Toronto is the only non-American city which cracks the world’s top 20.  I am not sure what to make of these differences; I expect some of it has to do with definitions of venture capital (early-stage vs. late-stage for example).  But looking at more than one data point throws Nejatian’s hypothesis into doubt.

But the bigger whopper in this article has to do with the claim that Canada does not educate enough engineers.  Now forget the fact that the number of engineering graduates has very little to do with success in innovation, even if you define innovation a narrowly as Nejatian does (i.e. as tech and nothing else).  His numbers are simply and outrageously wrong.  He claims Canada produced only 12,000 new Engineering grads; in fact, the number of undergraduate degrees awarded in Architecture & Engineering in 2014 was 18,000, and that’s excluding math and computer science (another 5,400), not to mention new graduate degrees in both those areas (another 11,700).  He claims the UK produces 3.5 times the number of engineers per capita that Canada does.  It doesn’t; there is a gap, but it’s not very big – 9% of their degrees go to engineers compared to 8% of ours (see figure below).  He repeats the scare claim – demolished long ago by Vivek Wadhwa among others – that India is going to eat our lunch because it graduates 1.5 million engineers per year.  This argument needs to go back to 2006 where it belongs: only a tiny percentage of these engineers are of the calibre of North American E-schools, and one recent Times of India  piece suggested that 93% of them were not actually employable (which sounds like an exaggeration but still points to a significant underlying problem).

Figure 1: Science & Engineering Degrees as % of Total Degrees Awarded, Selected OECD Countries

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(See what I mean?  The US has the smallest percentage of undergraduate degrees in engineering and yet it leads everyone else in tech…yet apparently that doesn’t matter to Nejatian – all that matters is MOAR ENGINEERS.  I mean, if we increase our proportion of degrees in engineering by about 60% we could be as innovative as…Italy?)

I could go on, but you get the picture.  This is a terrible argument using catastrophically inaccurate data and yet it gets a place in what is supposed to be our country’s premier publication on public policy.  It’s appalling.  But it fits with the way we talk about innovation in this country.  We focus on inputs rather than processes and relationships.  We see a lack of inputs and immediately try to work out how to increase them rather than asking i) do these inputs actually matter or ii) why are they low in the first place (actually, the only redeeming feature about this article is that it doesn’t make any recommendations, which given the quality of the analysis is really a blessing for all concerned).

Could Canada do with a few more engineers?  Probably.  It’s the one field of study where incomes of new graduates are still rising in real terms, which suggests the demand could support a greater supply.  But the causal link between Engineers and innovation is a vast oversimplification.  If we want better policy in this country, we need to start by improving the quality of the discourse and analysis.  Policy Options has done us all a disservice by letting this piece go out under their name.

February 09

Skills and Youth

What with the Advisory Council on Growth’s paper on skills, and the Expert Panel on Youth Employment wrapping up, public policy is suddenly back to a focus on skills – and in particular what skills youth should have.  So, let’s talk about that.

While some in the federal government will state forcefully that they are not – repeat NOT- going to be like the previous government and tell students what fields they should study (read: welding), literally every time skills come up they start babbling about coding, tech and whatnot.  So as near as I can tell, this government is just as directive about skills as the previous one, it’s just that a) they’re pushing a different set of skills and b) they aren’t actively trashing programs of study they see as less valuable, the way the Tories did with sociology.

The Liberals’ urge to get everyone tech-ing is understandable, if shallow.  What’s the one part of the youth labour market where kids are doing better than ever?  Engineering and computer science.  Are tech-enabled industries the wave of the future?  Well, kinda, depending on your definition of what that means.  But let’s think a little bit more about what that means.

Consider what I would call “hard” tech skills: the people who actually do code or computer science for a living. There’s just not that many of them around.  And here’s a secret: even if Canada becomes some kind of massive tech haven, there still won’t be that many around.  It’s simply not a high-employment industry.  Defining it really ambitiously and assuming high rates of growth, these jobs might equal five percent of the labor force.  So, yeah, let’s increase the size of engineering and CS programs, a bit.  But that’s not a skills solution for the economy as a whole.  We need something for the other 95% of the population.

Now, there’s a broader set of tech skills that matter to a broader subsection of the population.  Some people call these “coding skills” but it’s actually closer to digital literacy.  Basically, people who work with databases all the time – whether they are in accounting or sales or advertising or what have you – can become more productive if they better understand the logic behind databases and have some understanding of how algorithms might improve their use.  Artists and designers can command higher salaries if they have some digital skills.  To be clear – this doesn’t mean we need more credentials in these areas.  It means we need more people in the workforce who possess thee skills as part of their toolkit.  They could learn this stuff through coding schools or “bootcamps”, or maybe more colleges and universities could integrate these skills into existing programs but more likely most people are going to acquire these skills informally.  Which is fine, as long as they have them.

But still, put those two sets of tech skills together and you’re covering maybe a quarter of the labour force.  And that’s not good enough.  What are we going to do for everyone else?

No one has a crystal ball that can help understand what jobs of the future look like.  But it does seem the case that if technology is going to be as disruptive as the tech-boosters think it will be, then a lot of jobs are going to be automated.  In fact, human employment will be increasingly be concentrated in things that computers or robots cannot do.  And in the main, those are either jobs that require a wide variety of physical skills or jobs that involve judgement and empathy.  Last year, Geoff Colvin wrote a book on this subject called Humans are Underrated, which is worth reading if you’re into this topic.

Put it this way.  We’ve got a minority of our future workers who will be working hard to make better robots and algorithms to do things humans can’t do (at least not near the price computers can do it).  But we’re also going to have a majority of our future workers who are going to have to work hard at making themselves unreplaceable by machines by employing very human skills like empathy and narrative.  Why in the name of all that’s holy would we focus our energies just on the first group of workers?  Why not acknowledge what’s actually happening in the labour market and say: we’re going to work on both?

A final point about skills and youth.  As I noted back here something really does seem to have changed in the labour market after 2008.  Full-time enrolment rates in particular have shifted downwards – but this is much more pronounced among the younger age groups (15-19) than it is among older ones (25-29).  This is consistent with a theory of skills-biased technological change: younger people have fewer skills than older ones.  But be careful here in equating the acquisition of skills with obtaining an education.  Employers want people who can get a job done: by and large when they talk about “skills shortages” what they actually mean is “experienced worker shortages”, because to them acquired tacit knowledge matter at least as much formally-acquired knowledge.   To put that a little more concisely: it’s not just that education is more important than ever, but experience is also more important than ever, especially for young people.

I know the Expert Panel will be thinking about these issues, because they kindly invited me to a roundtable event last week and we talked about all this (thanks, Vass!).  But the people who really need to be thinking about these issues are colleges and universities – perhaps more the latter than the former.  Study after study for the last two decades have shown that the number one reason students attend university is to get a god job.

As I’ve just run through, jobs are about experience and skills.  Could be tech skills, could be empathy/narrative skills: either is fine.  Slowly, institutions are coming around to the idea that experience matters and so work-integrated learning is expanding.  Great.  Hard tech skills?  We’ve got a lot of that covered.  Integrating second-level tech skills into other programs in Arts, Science and business.  Getting there (in some places, anyway).  But the narrative/empathy stuff?  I know some people blather on about how humanities give you these skills somehow by osmosis, but do they really?  Who’s checking?  How is it being measured?  And why on earth would we want to limit that stuff to the Liberal Arts anyway?

If I were a university President, these are the kinds of things I’d be asking my Deans to think about.

February 07

Innovation and Skills Redux

So, yesterday Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth released five (!) papers on innovation, skills, and a bunch of other things.  I’m sure there’s a lot of ink on these in today’s papers, mainly around proposals to raise the retirement age (which we actually did two years ago, except the Trudeau government reversed it, but now evidence-based policy FTW, as the kids say).  I’ll restrict myself to some brief thoughts about two areas in particular: innovation and skills

On Innovation:   I must admit I got a bit of a thrill reading page 9 of the report, in which the Council body-slams the innovation Minister’s ideas about geographically-based innovation “clusters”.  They’re polite about it, “applauding” the Minister for coming up with such a great idea, but then go on to say that they’ve actually read the literature and know what works, and it ain’t clusters.  Hilarious.

What do they propose instead?  Well, it’s something called “innovation marketplaces”.  What are those you ask?  Well, to quote the report they’re “centers of technology and industry activity that are developed and driven by the private sector. An innovation marketplace brings together researchers and entrepreneurs with public and private customers around a common business challenge. These marketplaces match innovation demand from corporations and governments with innovation supply from researchers and entrepreneurs. This matchmaking strengthens supply-chain relationships and the flow of information, thereby fueling further innovation.”

If you think that sounds super hand-wavy, you are not alone.  In practice, there’s some overlap with the ideas Minister Bains has been peddling for months (Artificial Intelligence!  Cleantech!) but these idea are more focussed on industry and less geographically-based, both of which are Good Things.  However, it still equates innovation with new product development, specifically in gee-whizzy tech areas, which is a Bad Thing.  (Non-gee-whizzy sectors get their due in a separate paper on growth; a Good Thing to the extent that at least the Council conceptually understands the difference between Growth Policy and Innovation Policy.  I’m yet to be convinced the Minister has such an understanding.)  So there’s some overlap in ideas but considerable differences in the kinds of programs that are supposed to get us there.

But the budget’s only a couple of weeks away.  How does this circle get squared?   Messily, I suspect.  But we’ll have to wait and see.

On Skills:  According to the report, everything is going to be solved by a new agency going by the godawful name “Futureskills Lab”.  As near as I can tell, this agency is going to be a lot like the Canadian Council on Learning was, only: i) more focused on skills than education (by “skills” they seem to mean tech skills – eight of the ten examples of skills used in the report are tech), ii) more focused on (industry-led) experimentation and dissemination and “what works” and iii) it’s also going to be handed the prize of finally sorting out all that Labour Market Information stuff that Don Drummond has been yelling about for years and no one trusts Statscan to get right.  (I kid….Don Drummond would never raise his voice).

OK, so…there’s nothing wrong with funding lots of experimentation on skills and training.  In fact, it’s a great idea.  Fantastic.  The over-focus on tech skills is <headdesk> inducing, but my guess is that reality will kick in after a year or two and we’ll get a broader and more sensible set of skills priorities.  And there’s nothing wrong with better Labour Market Information, though I’m not particularly convinced that adopting all of Drummond’s recommendations will bring us to some kind of Labour Market Nirvana. (Short version, which maybe I should elaborate in a future blog: what Drummond mostly wants is backward-looking, which is great for economic analysis, not especially helpful for job-seekers or students looking to specialize).

But why do we need a new institution to do all this?  ESDC could fund experiments and analyses thereof.  Statscan could do the LMI stuff.  What advantage does a new institution necessarily have?  I’m not saying there are no advantages: the Millennium Scholarship Foundation is an example of an arguably unnecessary institution which nonetheless was responsible for some pretty interesting policy and delivery innovations.  But the advantages are uncertain and not well-argued in the report.

And there’s another issue.  The Council is keen that FutureSkills Lab be collaborative.  Super collaborative.  Especially with the provinces.  They really like the whole Canada Institute for Health Information (CIHI) model.  Well, the thing is, the federal government did try something similar a decade ago.  It was called the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL) – remember that? It was well-intentioned, but a political disaster because the feds set it up before actually talking to the provinces, leading the latter to essentially boycott it.  More to the point, CIHI works because it is responsible (in part) to the provinces, not just the feds.  If the Council recognizes the importance of this point, it is not evident in the report, which dances back and forth between saying it should “collaborate with” the Forum of Labour Market Ministers (i.e. with provincial governments) and saying it should be “accountable” to them.

I’ll stick my neck out on this one: “accountable to” will fly, “collaborate with” will not.  If the federal government is going to take up this idea from the council, it needs to make clear to the provinces within the next few days if not hours that this is going to be 100% CIHI clone, accountable to provinces and feds and not a federal creature collaborating with provinces.  If that doesn’t happen, regardless of the merits of more experimentation and better LMI data, this idea is going to be an expensive repeat of the CCL failure.  Federalism still matters.

February 01

Loving It

Back in the summer you may have heard a bit of a brouhaha about a deal signed between Colleges Ontario and McDonald’s, allowing McDonald’s management trainees to receive advanced standing in business programs at Ontario colleges.  If you read the papers, what you probably saw was a he-said/she-said story in which someone from Colleges Ontario said something like “Ontario colleges are providing advanced credit for people who have been through a MacDonald’s management training program and that’s a good thing for access” and someone from the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) saying something like “Corporate education McDonald’s bad!”

This should have been an unequivocally good news story.  It is a travesty that it was not.  Here’s the real story.

McDonald’s, a company which employees around 400,000 employees directly and whose franchisees employ another 1.5 million, runs one of the largest internal corporate training programs in the world.  That’s not just the famous training center known as Hamburger University in Illinois, which is mainly for mid-management and executive development: they also have training centers in various locations around the world providing training programs for restaurant managers and crews.  While not many young employees stay at McDonald’s very long (turnover is something like 150% per year), a small fraction do stick with it to become managers.  And those that do receive a substantial education through the company in how to run a business.

Now, if you believe in the principles of prior learning recognition, you’ll recognize that this situation is a slam-dunk to create a standardized system of assessment to award credit.  Assessing prior knowledge can be a right mess; assessing knowledge gained through work experience (paid or unpaid) or in other forms of informal or non-formal learning in a way that maps on to some kind of credit or credential system is time-consuming and inexact.  But this situation is different.  With McDonald’s, there’s an actual written-down curriculum that can be used to do the curriculum mapping.  This is – comparatively – easy-peasy.

So what happened prior to last summer was that McDonald’s approached Colleges Ontario to try to work out such an arrangement.  Both sides had previous experience in doing something similar: McDonald’s had worked out a similar agreement in British Columbia with BCIT and Fanshawe College had led a national process to do an analogous type of curriculum mapping with the Canadian Military to allow its soldiers/veterans to count various parts of its training programs towards college credentials.  Faculty and admin representatives from all 24 colleges agreed on the parameters of the deal, then allowed a smaller technical group to work on mapping all the elements of McDonald’s coursework up to the Second Assistant Manager level of training onto the common (Ontario) college standard outcomes for the Business Administration diploma.  At the end of it, it was decided that one level was more or less equivalent to another, and so individuals who had reached Second Assistant Manager could automatically get a year’s worth of credit (there’s no partial credit for having complete some McDonald’s training: this is an all-or-nothing deal).

So what are the criticisms?  Basically, they amount to:

  1. College-level courses need to be taught by college teachers in a college atmosphere
  2. McDonald’s is a big evil corporation. Why with McDonald’s?  Why not others?
  3. Why isn’t mapping available publicly?

The first argument, taken to its logical conclusion, essentially says that PLAR is illegitimate because no knowledge derived from outside the classroom can possibly count. Presumably people who believe this also believe mapping arrangements for Armed Forces training is also a complete scandal.

The second…well, if that’s your belief, I suppose there is no shaking it.  As for why McDonald’s – it’s because they asked.  And they had a hell of a well-documented curriculum to present to Colleges Ontario.  Presumably similar deals are open to other businesses, but no one (to my knowledge) has asked.  As for the third, it’s clear why it’s not public: McDonald’s treats the curriculum of its courses as corporate intelligence – as they have every right to do – and don’t want it published for the world to see.  One could make the argument that a decision involving credits at public institutions needs to be to be fully in the public domain.  But, one, that would mean that virtually every program at Ontario university is suspect (just try finding curriculum maps or un-redacted program evaluations online and see how many are publicly available) and two, faculty co-ordinators responsible for Business Administration from all 24 institutions (all of whom are OPSEU members, incidentally) all saw the detailed curriculum in confidence and signed off on the deal, which seems like a reasonable saw-off.

In short, this is a good deal.  If we want to promote life-long learning and increase prior learning recognition, we need more of these, not less.  Bravo to everyone involved.

May 02

What’s Going On With College Graduates in Ontario?

I see that Ken Coates and Bill Morrison have just written a new book  called Dream Factories: Why Universities Won’t Solve The Youth Jobs Crisis.  I haven’t read it yet, but judging by the title I’d assume that it makes pretty much the same argument Coates made back in this 2015 paper  for the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, which in effect was “fewer university students, more tradespeople!” (my critique of this paper is here)

With the fall in commodity prices, it’s an odd time to be making claims like this (remember when we had a Skills Gap?  When’s the last time you heard that phrase?).  There’s no evidence based on wages data that trades-related occupations are experiencing greater growth that those in the rest of the economy – since 2007, wages in these occupations have grown at exactly the same rate as the overall economy.  True, occupations in the natural resource sector did experience higher-than-average growth between 2010 and 2014, but unsurprisingly they underperformed the rest of the economy in 2015.  (see figure 1).  More to the point, perhaps, these jobs aren’t a particularly large sector of the economy – if you exclude the mostly seasonal agricultural harvesting category, Canada only has about 265,000 workers in this field.  That’s less than 1.5% of total employment.

Figure 1: Real Wage Increases by Occupation, Canada, 2007-2015, 2007=100

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Source: CANSIM

More generally, though, the assumption of Coates and those like him is that in the “new” post-crisis  economy college graduates have qualitatively different (and better) outcomes than university graduates, too.  But a quick look at the actual data suggests this isn’t the case.  Figure 2 shows employment rates 6-months out of college graduates in Ontario over the past decade.  Turns out college graduates have experience more or less the same labour market as university students: an almighty fall post-Lehmann brothers and no improvement thereafter.

Figure 2: Employment Rates of College Graduates, Ontario, 2005-2015

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Source: Colleges Ontario Key Performance Indicators

The decline in employment rates can’t really be described as a regional phenomenon, either.  There is not a single college which can boast better employment rates today than it had in 2008: most have seen their rates fall by between 4 and 7 percentage points.  The worst performer is Centennial College, where employment rates have fallen by 13 percentage points; one wonders whether Centennial’s performance has something to do with the very rapid growth in the number of international students it has started accepting in the last decade.

Figure 3: Change in Employment Rates 2008-2015

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Source: Colleges Ontario Key Performance Indicators

So what’s going on here?  Is there something that’s changed in college teaching?  Is it falling behind the times?  Well, not according to employers.  Satisfaction rates among employers stayed rock-solid over the period where employment rates fell; and although there has been a slight decline  in the last couple of years, the percentage saying they are satisfied or very satisfied remains over 90%.  Graduate satisfaction fell a bit during the late 00s when employment rates fell, but they too remain very close to where they were pre-crisis.

Figure 4: Employer & Student Satisfaction Rates for College Graduates, Ontario, 2005-2015

2016-05-01-4

Source: Colleges Ontario Key Performance Indicators

My point here is not that colleges are “bad” or universities are “better”.  Rather, my point is that if you measure the success of any part of the post-secondary system exclusively by employment rates, then you’re basically hostage to economic cycles.  Some parts of the cycle might make you look good and others might look bad; regardless, it’s largely out of your hands. So, maybe we should stop focusing so much on this.  And we should definitely stop pretending colleges and universities are different in this respect.

September 18

Party Platform Analysis: The Conservatives

Back again for some more election platform analysis.  This week: the Conservatives.  But first, a caveat.  Part of the problem with trying to analyze party platforms in a 326-day election is that one’s rhythm gets all thrown off.  In a five-week campaign, all of the announceables are pretty much there in the first 21 days or so, so you more or less know when a party’s done announcing things.  In this election, we’re weeks into the campaign and we can’t be completely sure if the parties are done announcing things, unless, like the Greens, they actually publish the entire manifesto at once (an idea which, judging by their behaviour, the other parties find ridiculously passé).  So what I’m about to analyze is the Conservative platform as of Wednesday the 16th of September.  It’s possible there is a little more to come, but I have a feeling there isn’t – if I’m wrong, I will add some analysis later in the campaign.

Now, I should start by acknowledging that there loads of people in PSE who won’t care a fig what Conservatives promise, because they think the Harper record consists entirely of some kind of “War on Science”.  Long-time readers will know I’m not a fan of that theory: treatment of science and data within government (e.g. the long-from census) has been pretty horrible, but they haven’t done so badly on funding of academic science.  Arguably, by historic standards, their support has been the second-best of any government in Canadian history.  Their problem, however, is that first place goes to their immediate predecessors.

Anyways, the Tory strategy on higher education in this election seems to be to go with small, but tightly-targeted promises.  The first, released a couple of days after the election call, was a change to the Apprenticeship Job Creation Tax Credit (not to be confused with the much sillier Apprenticeship Completion Bonus). This credit targets employers, which is the right focus, since they are the ones who control the supply of apprenticeship “places”.  Currently, it provides employers with a non-refundable tax credit of up to 10% of wages paid to each first- and second-year apprentice employed, up to a maximum of $2,000 per employee.  The tweak announced on August 3rd was to include third- and fourth-year apprentices, and bump the maximum reclaimable amount to $2,500.

This is one of those “meh” announcements.  Does it do a lot of good?  Probably not.  The credit makes sense in first and second year because those employees are noobs who require so much supervision that they don’t always add value.  By their third and fourth year, however, apprentices are getting hired because they add value to an employer, not because there’s a tax break involved (and in any case, in a lot of companies, the people doing the taxes don’t always talk to the HR people who make hiring decisions, so the logic model here of how this increases the supply of spaces isn’t perfect).  But on the other hand, it doesn’t do a lot of harm either.  It’s small ball – I didn’t see a cost estimate for this, but it’s got to be somewhere in the $30-50 million range.

The other, better announcement had to do with improvements to the system of Canada Education Savings Grants (CESG).  You remember those?  Introduced in 1998, they initially paid a 20 cent top-up on every dollar placed in a Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP), up to a maximum of $400/year (later increased to $500).  About ten years ago the system was tweaked to create something called an A-CESG, which changed the top-up rate on the first $500 contributed to 40 cents on the dollar for families in the bottom income quartile, and 30 cents on the dollar for those in the second quartile.  In early September, the Conservatives announced they would raise those top-ups again, to 60 cents and 40 cents, respectively.

Some of the usual suspects dismissed this announcement out-of-hand because “savings are only for the rich”.  That’s idiotic – it’s right there in the design that this money only goes to families with below-median income.  In that sense, this is a tight, targeted, progressive measure.  But like with the apprenticeship credit, you have to wonder if it’s actually going to change anything.  Why give more money to people who are already saving, rather than – say – adjusting the Canada Learning Bond (which essentially kick-starts RESPs for low-income families by making a $500 initial donation) and making it an automatic benefit,  instead of an application-based one?  It’s not so much that it’s a bad promise; it’s just less effective than it could be.

This, to my mind, sort of sums up the Conservative record.  They can be counted on to do something every year for post-secondary education: just not always the most effective thing.

Next week: probably the NDP, if they’ve fully release their platform.

October 31

Apprenticeships and Commodity Prices

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the commodities “supercycle” coming to an end.  The most immediate evidence for this is what’s happening with the price of oil, which is falling rapidly (the spot price is down 27% in the last 4 months, but more importantly the 5-year futures price is down 24% ).   That’s both because of weaker global demand and because there’s a lot more oil out there than there used to be, thanks to (among other things) improved shale oil recovery techniques.

So what does this mean for higher education?  At the moment it seems unlikely to affect much for universities except insofar as it affects provincial economies, and hence tax revenues.  Alberta’s budget is less sensitive to oil prices than to gas prices; Newfoundland is the only province that is likely to get hit badly.  On the other hand, the economies of Quebec and Ontario are likely to see a boost – oil price drops tend to act like tax cuts, so that’s good news for universities in those provinces.

Where I think the end of the commodity supercycle (if that’s what it is) is going to hurt most is in skilled trades apprenticeships.  For the past decade and a half, apprenticeship registrations have been escalating constantly.  And while registrations have increased everywhere across the country, a lot of it has been driven by the migration of skilled tradespeople to Alberta (and to a lesser extent BC and Saskatchewan), which in turn has been linked to the rise in commodity prices, particularly the price of oil.

Figure 1 shows this pretty clearly.  The orange line is apprenticeship registrations, and the blue line is the spot price for West Texas Intermediate crude (which is the usual benchmark for Alberta crude).  It seems clear as day that the pick-up in apprenticeships in the late 1990s correlated pretty tightly with the return of the oil boom.

Figure 1: Oil Prices (in $2013 CDN) and Apprenticeship Registrations, 1991-2012

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That said, it does seem as though apprentice registrations and WTI decouples somewhat after the oil price crash in 2008, so maybe they can withstand a further reduction in price.  But if oil falls below $80/barrel (which it did this week), some estimates are that fully a quarter of new projects become uneconomical.  Intuitively, this seems like it would have enormous knock-on effects, not just in Alberta’s resource industry but also in its construction industry.  And if all those people from Ontario and the Maritimes start heading home, then the knock-on effects will be felt in the rest of the country, as well.

We got into a very lazy habit over the past decade of thinking that training and apprenticeships in the skilled trades was “safe”.  We told a lot of kids that they should forego other forms of education, because they could make out like bandits as apprentices.

In the short term, that was true.  But back in the 1980s, in the trough of the last commodity bust, unemployment rates in the skilled trades were in the double digits.  It’s not completely out of the question that could happen again.

June 02

Bad Memory

Some really sobering stuff in a paper I just got from Statscan called, “Job Market Realities for Post-Secondary Graduates”.  Listen to this:

  • “Graduates of a field with low unemployment and little underemployment were also likely to earn high salaries and be content with their jobs.  They were usually graduates of job-oriented fields such as engineering, teacher training, most health disciplines, business, computer science and some technologies.”
  • “A more general education in subjects with little practical application often (leads) to a lower-paid job which made little use of knowledge and skills acquired during the years of study… those who fared worst held degrees/diplomas in fine and applied arts, humanities and social sciences and some of the sciences.”
  • “Many trades, which do not require post-secondary education, pay better than some occupations held by postsecondary graduates, especially office work.”
  • “Newfoundland offered the highest starting salaries, with Saskatchewan a close second.”
  • “Half of all bachelor’s graduates planned to go back to school within two years.”

Enraging what decades of neo-liberalism has done to our education system, huh?  Why can’t we go back to the 70s when everyone had a job, humanities and social science graduates weren’t undervalued and everyone had a job?

Oh, wait, hang on.  This survey is from the 1970s!  In fact, all of this is from the two-year follow-up of the university and college graduating classes of 1976 (the forerunner of the current National Graduates Survey).

Turns out the 1970s weren’t quit the bonanza that some folks like Generation Squeeze like to make it out.  For the class of 1976 in Ontario, the unemployment rate 2 years out for university graduates was 8%.  For the class of 2010, it was 5%.  Average salary 2 years out for the class of 1976 was $14,600, or $47,300 in 2012 dollars.  For the class of 2012, the equivalent figure was $49,277.  In 1978, 80% of recent grads said their job had a relationship with their field of study.  In 2012?  82%.

I could go on here, but you get the picture.  There’s very little going on for graduates in the labour market that wasn’t going on forty years ago.  Back then, we were also in a resource boom, and trades looked good compared to Arts and Science.  Jobs in Newfoundland and Saskatchewan looked pretty good compared to jobs in Ontario (we don’t know about Quebec because back during the first PQ government, Quebec institutions weren’t allowed to participate in national studies like this).  This is just a phase we go through.

Of course, some people may look at this result and see stagnation.  Graduates only getting a $2,000 raise in 40 years!   But this is to miss the point almost entirely.  In 1978, the participation rate at Canadian universities was around 10%; we’re now just over 30%.  That is to say, even accounting for population growth, there are three times as many young people getting salaries which, on average, are the same as the coddled, easy-going graduates of the mid-70s.

Nostalgia makes us look at the past with rose-coloured glasses.  But it’s no basis for making policy.  Look past the soft-focus gauze and the rantings of the hell-in-a handbasket crowd: the fact is, our grads are doing as well as they have at any time in the last 40 years.  We should celebrate that.

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