HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: hiring

March 12

The Skills “Crisis”: Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs

There’s a very slim volume out from Wharton Press called, Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs.  It’s by Peter Cappelli, a management professor from the University of Pennsylvania, who adapted the book from a series of articles he wrote for the Wall Street Journal in 2010 and 2011.  Not all of it applies to Canada (it’s a very US-focussed book), but enough of it does that I think it’s worth a read for everyone with an interest in the skills debate.

The book takes a simple “myth-busting” approach to the skills debate, much of which would be familiar to those of you who read this blog regularly (notably, with respect to how skills shortages are defined, and whether or not employers have considered the simple approach of “raising wages” as a way to solve said shortages).  But Cappelli makes three additional specific points that I think need to be more fully considered by everyone involved in the skills debate:

1)      Electronic job applications have revolutionized large-company hiring practices – but not necessarily for the better.  Because the internet has vastly lowered the barriers to application, companies have been flooded with applications.  Their response has been to automate the search process.  What tends to happen is that employers, in an attempt to keep numbers manageable, simply search for keywords on CVs – keywords that screen out far too many people.  This leads to a situation where the only people eligible for the job are people who have already done the job.  (There’s also an amusing anecdote about an HR firm CEO who suspected this was happening at his own company, and so sent in his own CV, incognito.  He was rejected.)

2)      Hiring new workers isn’t like shopping at Home Depot.  For any given body of work that a company undertakes, many different hiring strategies exist.  You could, for instance, do a job with a few highly-skilled workers and a lot of low-skilled workers, or an intermediate number of intermediate-skilled workers.  While certain job-specific skills are necessary, companies mainly need portfolios of skills across their entire workforce.  And the most important skill is the ability to work hard and be adaptable – precisely the kind of thing that hiring managers have trouble determining from keyword searches.

3)      North America (he says the US, but I think Canada fits this definition too) is the only place in the world that thinks of companies as consumers of skills.  Pretty much everywhere else in the world, they are thought of at least partly as producers of skills, because they do radical things like “training”.   If we have elevated expectations of our post-secondary institutions, why do we not have elevated expectations of employers as well?  Sure, it’s great when colleges and universities turn out prepared graduates, talented graduates, adaptable graduates.  But fully-trained, already-able-to-do-the-job graduates?  Employers have to be more realistic, and step up to the plate themselves.

All in all, a worthwhile contribution to the debate.  Pick it up.

March 10

Could We Eliminate Sessionals if We Wanted To?

Last week, when I was writing about sessionals, I made the following statement:

“Had pay levels stayed constant in real terms over the last 15 years, and the surplus gone into hiring, the need for sessionals in Arts & Science would be practically nil”.

A number of you wrote to me, basically calling BS on my statement.  So I thought it would be worthwhile to show the math on this.

In 2001-02, there were 28,643 profs without administrative duties in Canada, collectively making $2.37 billion dollars, excluding benefits.  In 2009-10, there were 37,266 profs making $4.29 billion, also excluding benefits.  Adjusting for inflation, that’s a 56% increase in total compensation – but, of course, much of that is taken up by having more profs.  If we also control for the increase in the number of professors, what we have left is an increase of 18.8%, or $679 million (in 2009 dollars).

How many new hires could you make with that?  Well, the average assistant prof in 2009 made $90,000.  So, simple math would suggest that 7,544 new assistant profs could have been hired for that amount.  That means that had professors’ salaries stayed even in real terms, universities could have hired 16,347 new staff in that decade, instead of the 8,803 they actually did.

(Okay, I’m oversimplifying a bit.  There are transaction costs to landing new professors.  And hiring that many young profs all at once would just be storing up financial chaos 5-15 years down the road, as they gain in seniority.  So $679 million probably wouldn’t buy you that many new profs.  But on the other hand, if you were doing some hiring, you’d spend less money on sessionals, too, so it’s probably not far off.)

Would that number of new hires have eliminated the need for sessionals?  Hard to say, since we have no data either on the number of sessionals, or the number of courses they collectively teach.  What we can say is that if 7,500 professors had been hired, the student:faculty ratio would have fallen from 25:1 to 22:1, instead of rising – as, in fact, it did – to 27:1. That’s a pretty significant change no matter how you slice it.

(The question remains, though: would you want to give up sessionals, even if you could?  As I pointed out last week, in many programs sessionals perform a vital role of imparting practical, real-world experience to students.  And even where that’s not their primary function, they act as swing labour, helping institutions cope with sudden surges of students in particular fields of study.  They have their uses, you know.)

Now, I’m not suggesting that professors should have foregone all real wages increases over a decade, in order to increase the size of the professoriate.  But I am suggesting that universities have made some choices in terms of pay settlements that has affected their ability to hire enough staff to teach all the students they’ve taken on.  The consequence – as I noted before – is more sessionals.  But it very definitely did not need to be that way.

January 13

Africa: A Wrong Turn in Higher Ed Policy

One of the policy fads sweeping Africa right now is the idea that all teaching staff should possess PhDs.  It’s now policy in Nigeria, and a number of other countries.  I’m not sure where this policy priority came from, but it’s a terrible idea, diverting resources away from where they’re most needed at a time when the system is straining under the weight of ever-growing demand.

“Wait a minute”, I hear you say.  “Who can be against having more qualified teachers?  Why not have a higher entrance standard for new faculty?”  If only it were that simple.

The key here is to understand how the higher education hiring process actually works in developing countries.  In the west, individuals go about the business of becoming PhDs on their own, finding funding from various sources as necessary/possible.  Universities then take their pick of candidates who have managed to get that far.  This means universities almost entirely externalize the cost of training their academic workforce.

In Africa, where PhD programs are thin on the ground, it usually doesn’t work that way. There aren’t a lot of young scholars there who have the money and academic capital to make it into, and through, the western graduate school system, and of those that do, a fair few will stay in the west to earn higher pay.  So what’s an African university to do?

The answer is that potential “faculty” are often identified at the Master’s or even Bachelor’s level, and given jobs as lecturers (in countries like Uganda, a rather high proportion of lecturers have no qualification above a Bachelor’s degree).  Over time, the university pays them to get higher qualifications. Until fairly recently that meant Master’s Degrees; now it means Doctoral degrees.  So, when an African policy-maker says, “let’s make sure everyone has a PhD”, what he/she is really saying is: “let’s saddle institutions with higher staff development costs”.

(Institutions of course don’t always mind this; more PhDs means more prestige, and for the individual involved it’s an unmitigated bonus.)

But these higher staff costs have implications.  In sub-Saharan Africa, where per-student expenditures run between $1500-$2000 per year, spending $20K/year or more training one staff person up to PhD level is a significant sacrifice.  Making it a policy to do this for as many staff as possible, so that every faculty member can have a PhD, is a policy that will likely end up inhibiting access at public institutions in the short-term.

Of course, African universities aren’t wrong to want to upgrade their staff; it’s just that a little perspective on how quickly they need to do it – and the trade-offs it entails – need to be taken into account.  Significantly, China, India, and Latin America are a long way from the 100% line African universities are chasing, and none of them are making it anything like the priority it is in Africa.  Ultimately, this begs the question: why should the world’s poorest-funded universities adopt the world’s most expensive staff development policies?

December 04

Hard Thinking about Soft Skills

So, as I predicted a few days back, Canadian Council of Chief Executives’ CEO, John Manley, gave a speech to the Canadian Club (available here) in which he challenged the conventional wisdom about skills crises – which is presumably why it got zero press coverage.  He began by making the following points, based on a survey conducted of 100 major Canadian employers:

  • Skills shoratges are a problem, but only 11% of employers said it was a big problem (see graph below);
  • The shortages are in IT, Engineering, and skilled trades.  Scientists and researchers are the easiest positions to hire;
  • When evaluating hires, industry-specific knowledge is only the 6th-most important consideration, behind people skills, communication skills, problem-solving skills, analytical abilities, and leadership skills.

Figure 1. From the Standpoint of Your Company, How Much of a Problem are Skills Shortages?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At this point, however, Manley’s speech took a very weird turn.  Having laid out the case for soft skills being the crux of the skills shortage for many companies, he veered into a discussion of Canada’s increasingly mediocre results on PISA/PIAAC literacy and numeracy tests, and why Canada needs to improve.  Though it’s hard to disagree with the call for better skills in reading and math, it’s also not immediately obvious how either has a whole lot to do with, say, leadership or people skills.

(Canada seems to suffer from a strange inability to effectively link problems to solutions in education.  Need soft skills?  More math classes!  Need a few more pipefitters in Alberta?  Canada Jobs Grant!  It’s almost like a form of policy Tourette’s or something – when presented with a skill-related problem, we blurt out whatever’s already on our mind, rather than work out some kind of reasoned response.)

Anyways, all of this aside – it occurred to me that there’s an enormous branding opportunity for an institution that actually decided to put “soft skills” at the core of its curriculum.  Pretty much all of them, save leadership, can be taught through something not a million miles from an existing curricula – and even that could be incorporated without too much difficulty.

Certainly, to be credible you’d need to make a full-scale curriculum revamp, which would be neither simple nor quick; but think of the upside for a university or college: a school that put leadership and communication at the core of its curriculum would be offering something that is both in line with the traditional liberal arts (rhetoric was one of the seven liberal arts, after all) but that is also fundamentally in line with what today’s employers want.  It would give a school an interesting sales pitch both to employers and students.

I’m not sure every school would want to do it, but for small-to-medium size schools with enrolment challenges (e.g. Trent, Acadia, St. Thomas), “Soft Skills U” would be an interesting niche to try to occupy – if it were done seriously, and not simply slapping a label on what the institution already does.

January 15

Those “Lost Generation” Stories

I see Maclean’s is cashing in on the zeitgeist with yet another story about a “lost generation“.  These stories always cover the same arc: Find a young, bright, hardworking, recent graduate whose career, for one reason or another, hasn’t hit lift off; blame this situation on the recession, even though that link can’t really be proven; provide some cod-economic arguments as to why this state of affairs is permanent; repeat.

But we should know it’s not true, because we’ve seen this film before; both the early 80s and early 90s also had “lost generations”.  Each time the term crops up, there are reasons why “this time is different”, but they’re mostly hogwash.  That Maclean’s article lists five such reasons, none of which stand up to much scrutiny.

i)     The decline of central Canada’s manufacturing sector, and the union jobs it sustained;

True, but those jobs never went to university grads anyway – so how is this relevant?

ii)     Relentless cost-cutting by corporations;

OK, but most of the people being profiled are actually looking for public sector careers.  And private sector jobs are actually up over the past few years.

iii)     The demographic bulge of older workers occupying high-skilled, well-paying positions;

Older people always have better jobs than younger people – that’s not news.  And since the labour market is currently stable – new entrants are closely matched by new retirees -  the “bulge”  argument is simply not true.

iv)     Parents who pressed their kids into university, hoping they’d get prestigious, white-collar jobs; 

Ah yes, the over-supply argument.  Problem is, there’s no good evidence that the pay of university graduates is falling; and as for youth unemployment, it’s about the same as its always been – twice the general rate of unemployment.  That strongly suggests that problems are cyclical

v)     and, Universities and colleges who indulged that urge, despite the changing demands of the labour market.

WHAT changing demands of the labour market?  How have university degrees become less necessary in the labour market over the past twenty years?  Or, if we’re just talking about grads since 2009, how exactly were universities supposed to be aware of the bust in 2005-7, when they accepted these students in the first place?

Here’s the deal:  some cohorts – like the classes of 2002-7 – get lucky.  They graduate into boom times and never really know what it’s like to struggle for a job.  Other cohorts are less lucky.  They graduate into periods of high unemployment and life sucks for awhile.  But eventually things improve.

Remember the characters in Douglas Copeland’s Generation X?   They eventually became the people that today’s journalists say are hogging all the good jobs. It got better for them; it will get better for the present lot as well.

December 20

More Thoughts on Presidential Selections

A couple of points which I couldn’t quite jam into last week’s blog on University Presidents:

1) Where are the foreigners?   Why do we assume that only Canadians can run Canadian universities?  It’s fairly obvious from their actions that university Boards of Governors assume this.  And when we do want a “foreign” perspective, all we seem to do is repatriate Canadians (e.g.: Robert Birgenau at Toronto, Roseann Runte at Carleton, Doyle Anderson at FNU, etc.).

That’s a pretty poor showing for a set of institutions which claims pretensions to being world-class.  Granted, every institution has a local community to satisfy, but it’s not as though our universities are so peculiar as to be impenetrable to outsiders.  If central banking has become a sufficiently technocratic profession that someone can swap Ottawa for London with relatively little difficulty, why should university leadership be any different?   American universities aren’t shy about this: Runte’s passport didn’t cause a stir when she was at Old Dominion; even Oxford has appointed foreigners to the Vice-chancellorship (John Hood was a kiwi).

Forgive me for banging this drum again, but why exactly, if we want to be taken seriously in the internationalization department, are we not aggressively hiring foreign senior administrative staff who might actually give us a leg up in this area?  Why haven’t one or two universities poached an Australian or a Brit to run their operations?  They’d certainly have more experience than almost any domestic candidate in terms of running universities on a shoestring, and attracting foreign students.

It’s a mystery to me.

2) Are there better ways to choose Presidents?  A couple of people wrote to me last week to ask whether there wasn’t a better way to select Presidents than the current method – having a dozen people go into secret conclave with a headhunter and emerge 8 months later with a name.

In much of the world – including some Quebec institutions -  the model is a democratic one.  Put simply, faculty vote for their Presidents.  This tends to favour insiders (though Francois Tavenas was elected at Laval, while still employed at McGill), which isn’t always a good thing, since a lot of back-room deals can be made on the way to building a winning electoral coalition.  An in-between solution is to present a number of candidates to the university community in a town hall setting, prior to making a final decision.  It’s more open and democratic than the current system, but if you require job candidates to announce to the world that they’re open to leaving their present job, you deter a lot of good candidates who already hold important positions.

So, no, I’m not sure there is a better method to be honest.  Sorry.

December 13

The Presidential Merry-Go-Round

It was noted recently that there are some big presidential vacancies looming, most notably at Toronto, McGill, Victoria, and Dalhousie.  So who’s going to get these plum jobs?

At Dalhousie, of course, we already know the answer: It’s Richard Florizone – formerly the VP Finance and Administration at the University of Saskatchewan, who also had stints at the International Finance Corporation (part of the World Bank), Bombardier, and the Boston Consulting Group.

This wasn’t Florizone’s first attempt at becoming a university President – why he wasn’t selected to succeed Peter McKinnon at Saskatchewan remains uncertain. One possibility is that the university wanted a change in style (not uncommon after a three-term presidency, no matter how good the President is – and McKinnon was one of the best); many considered Florizone too close to McKinnon, stylistically, to have a chance.  Another possibility is that the faculty felt his academic credentials weren’t strong enough; Florizone has a PhD in nuclear physics from MIT, but he preferred the private sector to the tenure track.  Nothing wrong with that, of course: Florizone’s definitely got all the skills to be an excellent university President.  But in the world of university leadership, his lack of professorial rank is a bit of an oddity.

What about the other three?  At UVic, after 13 years of David Turpin, the university might well favour an outsider (as was the case with Saskatchewan).  It could either pick up a President from a smaller university (Eddy Campbell and Ray Ivany would both be great choices, but my guess is that neither is available), or an up-and-coming Vice-President Academic (Carl Amrhein? Maureen Mancuso?).  Victoria’s one of the country’s more interesting universities, so there should be no shortage of strong candidates.

Toronto tends not to hire from other Canadian universities so an appointment from abroad is a strong possibility – which means it’s very hard to call.  At McGill, there’s going to be a real temptation to try to bring Stephen Toope home from UBC, which would then require filling a vacancy on the west coast.   Personally , I think you’d want to do a sanity check on anyone wanting to move from UBC to Quebec these days, but the hometown pull might be enough to sway Toope.  At the same time, Daniel Woolf is coming to the end of his term at Queen’s, so he might be in-frame, as well. Of course, David Turpin could also be a good choice, assuming he’s not royally sick of the whole administration thing by now (though if Woolf moves, Turpin would have to be top of Queen’s wishlist).

Want to impress people with your prognostication skills?  Leave your guesses for the Vic, McGill and Toronto presidencies in the comments section.

December 05

Access to Opportunity

There’s been a fair bit of talk over the past few months about the practice of articling in Ontario.  Specifically, the problem is that there are too many law school graduates for too few articling positions.  The situation has deteriorated to the point where the Law Society of Upper Canada has released a major report outlining an “alternative work experience,” in order to deal with the surplus of students who don’t get “real” articling positions.   For what it’s worth, I tend to agree with the minority report:  if implemented, this proposal will create a two-tiered system, and anyone who uses the alternative will, from the get-go, be stigmatized within the profession.

In one sense, there’s something impressive here about the way law schools have themselves escaped much of the blame; after all, the root cause of the problem was their decision to increase capacity well beyond what the articling system could support.  Now, I don’t believe in making universities alter admissions based on labour-market conditions; if people want to pay for the privilege of learning about law, there’s no reason to refuse their money.  But greater honesty with students is needed: if you know that a quarter of your graduates aren’t going to be able to get professional licensing because of an overloaded system, you should be required to explain that fact in very clear terms to incoming students.  Not to do so is ethically suspect.

But the real story here has not to do with the number of articling students, but rather with how they are actually distributed.   The Law Society report does make a passing reference to “equity” issues – the suspicion that, perhaps, non-white students aren’t getting a fair shake in articling spots.  But they never get to the heart of the matter, which is that law firms’ control of the articling process gives firms an enormous, unregulated role in controlling access to the profession.  And though no one will ever say this out loud, firms use this power to do favours for colleagues and clients.  “Oh, your son needs a spot?  We’ll see what we can do …”

We need to take a hard look at how real-world opportunities get distributed in Canada.  Justin Trudeau, a man given opportunities well beyond what his native talents would command, because of who his father was, is just the tip of the iceberg.   At the highest levels, this is a clique-y and insular place; jobs get publicized through insider networks rather than through open, merit-based competitions.  We’re not yet in New York publishing industry territory, where trustafarians have a hammerlock on all the choice positions, but in Toronto, at least, we’re closer to that situation than we’d like to admit.

Canada’s done a good job of ensuring access to education.  Pretty soon, though, we’ll need to start having serious discussions about ensuring access to opportunities.  And as Ontario’s articling situation shows, these are two different things.

September 02

America – the Exodus

As we watch our southern neighbours slide into seemingly perpetual budget crises and many state universities undergo some brutal austerity, it’s worth thinking about the American crises’ global impacts on higher education.

Scientific talent is not distributed evenly around the world. If there’s one thing that the Shanghai rankings show, it’s how unbelievably deep the scientific talent pool is at American universities. But talent can move. Twice in the twentieth century, countries suffered major exoduses of scientific talent. In 1930s Germany, hundreds of key scholars migrated from Germany to (primarily) America, a process which not only boosted the Allied war effort enormously, but set the stage for a period of dominance of American science that has lasted for over 65 years.

Though not quite on the same scale, the 1990s saw an enormous movement of Russian scholars to new homes in Europe and America in order to escape the economic collapse and concomitant shortages of research funds. What’s about to happen in the U.S. will probably not be on quite the same scale, but you can’t expect universities in California, Illinois, Texas and elsewhere to suck up financial hits of 20 to 40% and not lose talented staff to universities who can make them a better offer. Lucky for them, a lot of OECD universities are getting smacked just as hard by austerity and thus aren’t in a position to outbid them. But that’s not quite true in Canada, Scandinavia, and Asia (where the National University of Singapore, for instance, is hiring aggressively). Here, there is the potential to accommodate refugees from American budget cuts.

The key question is: how best to take advantage of this? If you’re a truly aggressive (and strategic) school, you might take a gamble: front-load your hiring for the next few years and specifically target some promising staff at U.S. schools. Hire your next five years’ worth of profs this year and make sure 90% are from American institutions. Sure, it’ll mean short-term deficits, but hey – credit’s never been cheaper and top academic talent is the very definition of productive capital. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Memo to provosts: Carpe diem.