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Tag Archives: Skills Shortage

June 12

The Nordstrom Philologist

People are always nattering on about skills for the new economy, but apart from some truly unhelpful ideas like “everyone should learn to code”, they are usually pretty vague on specifics about what that means.  But I think I have solved that.

What the economy needs – or more accurately, what enterprises (private and public) need – is more Nordstrom Philologists.

Let me explain.

One of the main consequences of the management revolutions of the last couple of decades has been the decline of middle-management.  But, as we are now learning, one of the key – if unacknowledged – functions of middle-management was to act as a buffer between clients and upper management on the one side, and raw new employees on the other.  By doing so, they could bring said new employees along slowly into the culture of the company, show them the ropes and hold their hands a bit as they gained in confidence and ability in dealing with new and unfamiliar situations.

But that’s gone at many companies now.  New employees are now much more likely to be thrown headfirst into challenging situations.  They are more likely to be dealing with clients directly, which of course means they have greater responsibility for the firm’s reputation and its bottom line.  They are also more likely to have to report directly to upper management, which requires a level of communication skills and overall maturity which many don’t have.

When employers say young hires “lack skills”, this is what they are talking about.  Very few complain that the “hard skills” – technical skills related to the specific job – are missing. Rather, what they are saying is they lack the skills to deal with clients and upper management.  And broadly, what that means is, they can’t communicate well and they can’t figure out how to operate independently without being at the (senior) boss’ door every few minutes asking “what should I do now”?

When it comes to customer service, everyone knows Nordstrom is king.  And a large part of that has to do with its staff and its commitment to customer care.  Communications are at the centre of what Nordstrom does, but it’s not communicating to clients; rather, it’s listening to them.  Really listening, I mean: understanding what clients actually want, rather than just what they ask for.  And then finding ways to make sure they get what they need.  That’s what makes clients and/or citizens feel valued.  And it’s what the best employees know how to provide.

And then there’s philology* – the study of written texts.  We don’t talk much about this discipline anymore in North America since its constituent parts have it’s been partitioned into history, linguistics, religious studies and a tiny little bit into art history (in continental Europe it retains a certain independence and credibility as an independent discipline).  The discipline consists essentially in constructing plausible hypotheses from extremely fragmentary information: who wrote the Dead Sea scrolls?  Are those Hitler diaries real?  And so on.   It’s about understanding cultural contexts, piecing together clues.

Which is an awful lot like day-to-day business.  There’s no possible way to learn how to behave in every situation, particularly when the environment is changing rapidly.  Being effective in the workplace is to a large degree about developing modes of understanding and action based on some simple heuristics and a constant re-evaluation of options as new data becomes available.  And philology, the ultimate “figure it out for yourself” discipline, is excellent training for it (history is a reasonably close second).

That’s pretty much it.  Nordstrom for the really-listening-to-client skills, philology for the figuring-it-out-on-your-own-and-getting-stuff-done skills.  Doesn’t matter what line of business you’re in, these are the competencies employers need.  And similarly, it doesn’t matter what field of study is being taught, these are the elements that need to be slipped into the curriculum.

*(On the off-chance you want to know more about philology, you could do a lot worse than James Turner’s Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities.  Quite a useful piece on the history of thought). 

September 10

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.

February 04

The “Skills for Jobs Blueprint”

I don’t pay as much attention as I should on this blog to matters British Columbian, mostly because I don’t get out there often enough.  But the province’s “Skills for Jobs  Blueprint” cries out for some critical treatment, because frankly it’s not all that smart.

Turn back the clock a bit: in April 2014, the BC government rolled-out a series of policies that were collectively branded as the “Skills for Jobs Blueprint”.  Much of it consisted of relatively sensible changes to trades training in view of the upcoming Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) mega-project.  However, included in this package was some other stuff that sounded like it had been dreamt up on the back of a cocktail napkin.  These included: more generous student aid to students enrolled in disciplines related to “high-demand” occupations, and requiring institutions to spend at least 25% of their budgets on disciplines related to “high-demand” occupations (to be phased in by 2017-18).

The student aid pledge was just silly: if these are truly high-demand occupations, they’ll pay more, and students will have less problem re-paying loans.  Why would you give more money to these people? The requirement for institutional spending had the potential to be ridiculous, but wasn’t necessarily so.  Whatever purists might think, public authorities spend money on higher education mainly to improve the local economy; and besides, depending on how broadly “high-demand” occupations were described, they might already be spending 25%.  There was the possibility, in other words, that it would require no change at all on institutions’ part.  But that would depend crucially on how BC defined “high-demand”.

This is where it gets maddening.  When the government finally released its definition of high-demand, it had nothing to do with a skills gap, and was not in any way based on analyses of supply and demand.  Instead, it was simply the 60 occupations with the most job openings.  Or, put differently: according to the government of BC, the highest-demand occupations are simply the 60 largest occupations.  Oy.

Now, it’s hard to tell whether institutions actually line up 25% of their spending on priority disciplines related to the “big 60”, since BC doesn’t work on any kind of funding formula.  However, it is possible to reverse engineer this kind of thing by looking at enrolment patterns, and assuming that spending weights are similar to what one would see in other provinces (read: Ontario and Quebec), as we demonstrated back here.  Which is what my colleague Jackie Lambert did.

The results were instructive.  Quite clearly, all colleges meet the test.  Among universities, it’s slightly more complicated.  If you simply take all enrolments in the academic programs most directly related to 59 of the 60 “most desired” occupations, and weight them in the ON/QC style, you find that province-wide, these programs already make up 32% of expenditures, and all universities except Emily Carr would meet the 25% cut.  However, the 60th occupation with the most “demand” is university professors (yes, really), which technically can be filled by doctoral students from any program.  Throw those in and you end up with almost 47% of all dollars being spent on “priority” areas.

Ideally, this result would mean the province could just declare victory (“Look!  25%! We showed them!”) and go home.  But these days, government can’t just be seen to be ordering institutions about; they have to actually be ordering them about.  So my guess is BC will avoid declaring victory, and instead use the ambiguity created by the lack of a funding formula to jerk institutions around a bit “(Spend here!  Don’t spend there!”), just to show everyone who’s boss.

Plus ça change…

February 03

Still No Skills Shortages

With predictably little fanfare, the Government of Canada recently released its Canadian Occupational Projection System (COPS) results for the years 2013-2022.  You may remember the last time they released their 10-year projections back here, which basically showed that, to the extent there were persistent labour shortages in the economy, they were by and large not in the skilled-trades areas the government claimed were in such desperate straits.

The 2013-2022 report has unfortunately been written in such a manner as to preclude easy comparisons with the 2011-2020 version.  Without getting too technical, the earlier one is based on 3-digit National Occupation Classification (NOC) codes, while this new report uses 4-digit codes.  That sounds like it would be more accurate and helpful, but since data on actual job numbers is suppressed at the 4-digit level, there is no accurate way to use the new data to discover how many actual positions a surplus or shortage might involve.  The best you can do – and what I do below – is to look at the summaries for 3-digit codes, and assume that all of the change at the 3-digit level is actually happening in the one 4-digit code you happen to be interested in.  Yes, that sucks, but this is what ESDC’s choice of methodology leaves us with.

COPS, it should be noted, is not a detailed set of sector-by-sector analyses; rather, it’s an algorithm that models job flows in an economy over time.  It occasionally produces some odd results, such as that the demand for legislators is going to increase, or that there is going to be a huge demand for university professors over the next decade (yes, really).  Basically, COPS isn’t very good at understanding how politics and public sector finances affect hiring in monopsonistic fields like education and health care.

Ok, caveats aside, what does the new COPS data say?  Some highlights:

  • Basically, we’re in balance –  172 of the 283 occupations examined are projected to have neither shortages nor surpluses in the next ten years.
  • Occupations that are in chronic shortage – that is, have been in shortage for some time, and are projected to remain in shortage – include: Registered Nurses (shortage of 46,000 over 10 years), Physicians and Dentists (36,000), Industrial Electricians (16,000), Management Consultants (10,000), Contractors and Supervisors for Heavy Construction Crews (9,000*), University Professors (5,000). Aerospace Engineers (3,000), Opticians (maybe 2,000).
  • Occupations moving into shortage – Administrative Officers & Property Officers (53,000), College/vocational Instructors (13,000), Health Care Managers (10,000), Elementary and Secondary Teacher Assistants (10,000), Contractors and Supervisors, Electrical Trades (9,000*) Insurance, Real Estate, and Financial Brokerage (7,000), Construction Estimators (3,000), Dental Technologists (2,000), Payroll Clerks, Chefs, Psychologists, Funeral Embalmers, Aircraft Assemblers (size of gap unknowable from available figures but presumed very small).

*Contractors & Supervisors, Trades, and Related Workers covers nine different occupations.  Seven of them are declared in balance, but the occupation as a whole is projected to have a shortage of 18,000.  This number was therefore spread equally over the two occupations, which were projected to be in shortfall – 9,000 each.

The chronic shortage positions are almost entirely taken up by positions that require university degrees – accounting for 80% of the 125,000 or so shortage positions in this category. Of the remaining 25,000, nearly all are in construction – and most of these are likely phantom jobs because the COPS projection assumes that oil prices will move steadily upwards to $150/barrel from 2013 onward.  In a world of $80/barrel, most of those shortages never happen.  Among the “moving into shortage” positions, nearly half of those jobs are accounted for by a single set of occupations (administrative officers); of the rest, roughly half require college-level credentials, and the other half university-level credentials.

In short, there’s not much to get excited about here.  If you take COPS literally, you’d probably hope governments are going to put a lot more money in health education over the next ten years.  If you look at it with a more jaundiced eye, you’d say “governments are never going to hire that many health professionals (or profs), and oil’s never going to $150”, and conclude there are virtually no skills shortages or the horizon at all.

October 01

A Venn Diagram About Skills Gaps

Short and sweet today, folks, as I know you’re all busy.

We’ve done a lot of research over the years at HESA Towers.  We read up on what employers want – and we also do studies that look at how recent graduates fare in the labour market, and what they wish they’d had more of while in university.  And pretty much, without exception, regardless of field of study, those two sources agree on what students need to be better-prepared for the labour market.

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So, want to give your grads a boost in the labour market?  Figure out how to give them those basic business skills.  Experiential learning is probably the most effective way to do it, but there are other ways, as well, both inside and outside the classroom.

It’s that simple.  Well, not simple at all really.  But at least the problem is well-defined.

June 03

STEM, Shortages, and the Truth About Doctoral Education

Harvard’s Michael S. Teitelbaum came out with an interesting new book last month called, Falling Behind? Boom, Bust and the Global Race for Scientific Talent.  Though it’s a very US- focused book, it’s worth a read as a corrective to the occasional hysterics that people have in Canada about our alleged STEM crisis.

The book starts with a wonderful chapter called “No Shortage of Shortages”, which suggests that the current STEM-shortage panic is the sixth in the US since Sputnik.  He also eviscerates the various employer- and research university-led reports that precipitated the most recent crisis talk (Innovate America, Tapping America’s Potential, and Rising Above the Gathering Storm), and shows that the evidence backing up these claims for crisis  simply don’t hold up.  What does hold up are the structural incentives that exist for various groups to claim there is a crisis when there is none: universities get more money, professors get more grad students, and employers get more PhDs, or more H1-B visas to enable the hiring of foreigners.

An interesting question Teitelbaum raises is whether it might be possible to create a board or agency with the responsibility of declaring when certain occupations are indeed in shortage.  He correctly lists a whole bunch of structural reasons why it might be difficult to find a respected neutral body that interest groups wouldn’t immediately try to undermine, but he does raise the interesting example of the UK’s Migration Advisory Committee, which has the responsibility of advising government on when shortages in specific skilled professions has become sufficiently acute to merit changes in immigration law.  Certainly something to think about with respect to our own Temporary Foreign Workers’ Program.

But to my mind the most important chapter – one everyone in higher education should read – is the chapter on the U.S. Academic Production Process.  He makes the point that the production of doctoral students is a function of research grant availability, not of demand for services of doctorally-educated graduates (and certainly not of the needs of academic institutions for new faculty).  Universities want doctoral students (and increasingly, postdocs) because over time, they have become the go-to form of scholarly labour that university research labs require in order to work.  If they have more money – say, if the US government increases the NIH budget by 100% over five years – there will be a huge explosion in the demand for doctoral students, which is entirely unconnected to the labour market demand for doctoral graduates.

This is a simple and unarguable point, but it is rarely stated quite so bluntly.  Eventually, domestic students figure this out, and fewer go into doctoral studies.  But that doesn’t decrease the demand for this kind of labour – so institutions start reaching out more and more for foreign students, particularly from Asia.  For these students, grad student conditions (and those that come afterwards, even in a depressed labour market) still look pretty good compared to what they can get back home.  To his credit, Teitelbaum doesn’t pretend there are any easy answers to this one and, in the end, simply falls back on the idea of requiring institutions to do a better job informing prospective graduate students about the realities of the academic job market – in terms very similar to the ones I proposed back here.

Anyways – pick up Teitelbaum if you get a chance.  It’s a rewarding read.

March 28

A Reminder Why Education, Skills, and Training are Provincial Responsibilities

We’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years talking about skills, skilled trades, skilled personnel, BAs vs. welders, jobs without people/people without jobs, and all kinds of other nonsense about education, training, and the labour market.  And to a large extent, when we argue about this stuff (and I’m including myself here), we’re arguing based on national-level data.

But the labor market isn’t national.

A recent paper by Kelly Foley and David Green made this point quite strongly.  This paper – delivered at an IRPP conference a few weeks ago – makes a number of important observations about education and the labour market, which I’ll have to save for another day.  But one of the most important points it makes is about returns to education in different parts of Canada.

The full paper isn’t available online, but I’d direct everyone’s attention the powerpoint, which is available here.   Slide 4 reminds us of the following:

1)      Among 25-34 year olds, return-on-investment for graduate degrees is much lower for men than for women.

2)      Among men, but not women in the same age group, the gap between the rate of return on bachelor’s degrees and college diplomas has narrowed sharply over the past decade or so.

3)      In fact, rates of return on all types of education are just a heck of a lot better for young women than men.  Startlingly so.

What’s all this gender stuff that got to do with regionalism in the labour market?  Well, take a look at slide 5, which breaks down male earnings by region.  In Ontario and Quebec, returns to education are what you’d expect: higher for graduate degrees than for Bachelors, which in turn are higher than for college diplomas.  But it turns out that both in the Atlantic and in the West, the returns to college education are actually higher than the returns to university.  Indeed, in western Canada they are even higher than they are for graduate studies.

I think it’s safe to assume this isn’t because universities outside Quebec and Ontario are uniquely bad or their colleges uniquely good.  Rather, it’s because labour markets in these regions are looking for fundamentally different sets of skills.  And as far as entry level workers are concerned, it’s pretty clear that they’re asking for more of the type produced by colleges, and less from universities.

And this brings us back to the national debate.  A lot of the rhetoric around skilled trades and the uselessness of Bachelor’s degrees (e.g. Ken Coates, much of the Conservative party) is coming from western Canada, where this actually fits the available data.  Equally, the firing back on the same issues (e.g. me, among others) is coming from central Canada, where this also fits the available data.  To a large extent we’re just talking past each other; both correct locally, but less so nationally (I’ll try to be more careful about this in the future).

But here’s the takeaway point: the fact that the labour market rewards different types of education differently in different parts of the country is exactly the reason the Feds’ involvement in education and training should be as minimal as possible.  We are simply too diverse a country for one-size fits-all policy tools.  Kudos to Foley and Green for reminding us of that.

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.

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.

November 25

Can Business Speak Up, Please?

This Thursday, the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE) CEO, John Manley, is speaking at the Canadian Club in Toronto on the subject of “Strengthening Canada’s Human Capital Advantage”.  Now, you may roll your eyes at this and think, “oh God, not another welders vs. BAs talk”.  But it’s possible that this is going to be a useful, serious event.  Although “everybody knows” that the business community believes there’s a critical skills gap, I don’t think business as yet has actually spoken very much on the subject.

Oh sure, there’s no shortage of people making a case on behalf of business: Jason Kenney, CIBC’s Benjamin Tal, the Conference Board’s Michael Bloom – all of whom, in one way or another, are saying, “more welders, fewer BAs”.  But none of these are actual business people.  We used to have something in Canada called the Corporate Higher Education Forum (CHEF), which served an interlocutor function on education policy, but it died of apathy almost 15 years ago.  Nowadays, you’re a lot more likely to hear policy entrepreneurs like Bloom talking than you are actual business leaders.  And that’s less helpful.

I have no doubt that resource-extraction industries in Western Canada are in dire need of people with a few very specific technical skills, like welding.  But they’re a tiny fraction of business in this country – 2 or 3 per cent at most.  What about small business?  What about manufacturing and services?  Heck, what about government itself?  What skills do they all want, and in what quantities? We have no idea.

We have a pretty good system in Canada for getting employer feedback to individual college and university programs, but no way of co-ordinating that feedback at a provincial or national level so that governments can understand the aggregate needs of the economy as a whole.  At the moment it seems to be that the squeakiest wheel gets the grease, which is a terrible way to develop policy.  So, the fact that CCCE is getting involved in the skills field is almost certainly a good thing, because its members’ human resource needs are broader than the trades, and thus they’re likelier to provide a more balanced picture.

My guess is that if you ask business leaders the right question, they’ll say that the issue isn’t the number of skilled tradespeople, but about skills levels right across the board of all new graduates.  Such an answer, if it is ever forthcoming, would move the conversation from one of welders vs. BAs  to one of learning outcomes in every post-secondary program.  In some ways, it is a more difficult debate.  But it’s far preferable to the infantile discussion we’re having now.

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