HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: skills

May 10

Why Education in IT Fields is Different

A couple of years ago, an American academic by the name of James Bessen wrote a fascinating book called Learning by Doing: The Real Connection Between Innovation, Wages and Wealth.  (It’s brilliant.  Read it).  It’s an examination of what happened to wages and productivity over the course of the industrial revolution, particularly in the crucial cotton mill industry.  And the answer, it turns out, is that despite all the investment in capital which permitted vast jumps in labour productivity, in fact wages didn’t rise that much at all.  Like, for about fifty years.

Sound familiar?

What Bessen does in this book is to try to get to grips with what happens to skills during a technological revolution.  And the basic problem is that while the revolution is going on, while new machines are being installed, it is really difficult to invest in skills.  It’s not simply that technology changes quickly and so one has to continually retrain (thus lowering returns to any specific bit of training); it’s also that technology is implemented in very non-standard ways, so that (for instance) the looms at one mill are set up completely differently from the looms at another and workers have to learn new sets of skills every time they switch employers.  Human capital was highly firm-specific.

The upshot of all this: In fields where technologies are volatile and skills are highly non-standardized, the only way to reliably increase skills levels is through “learning by doing”.  There’s simply no way to learn the skills in advance.  That meant that workers had lower levels bargaining power because they couldn’t necessarily use the skills acquired at one job at another.  It also meant that, not to put too fine a point on it, that formal education becomes much less important compared to “learning by doing”.

The equivalent industry today is Information Technology.  Changes in the industry happen so quickly that it’s difficult for institutions to provide relevant training; it’s still to a large extent a “learning by doing” field.  Yet, oddly, the preoccupation among governments and universities is: “how do we make more tech graduates”?

The thing is, it’s not 100% clear the industry even wants more graduates.  It just wants more skills.  If you look at how community colleges and polytechnics interact with the IT industry, it’s often through the creation of single courses which are designed in response to very specific skill needs.  And what’s interesting is that – in the local labour market at least – employers treat these single courses as more or less equivalent to a certificate of competency in a particular field.  That means that these college IT courses these are true “microcredentials” in the sense that they are short, potentially stackable, and have recognized labour market value.  Or at least they do if the individual has some demonstrable work experience in the field as well (so-called coding “bootcamps” attempt to replicate this with varying degrees of success, though since they are usually starting with people from outside the industry, it’s not as clear that the credentials they offer are viewed the same way by industry).

Now, when ed-tech evangelists go around talking about how the world in future is going to be all about competency-based badges, you can kind of see where they are coming from because that’s kind of the way the world already works – if you’re in IT.  The problem is most people are not in IT.  Most employers do not recognize individual skills the same way, in part because work gets divided into tasks in a somewhat different way in IT than it does in most other industries.  You’re never going to get to a point in Nursing (to take a random example) where someone gets hired because they took a specific course on opioid dosages.  There is simply no labour-market value to disaggregating a nursing credential, so why bother?

And so the lesson here is this: IT work is a pretty specific type of work in which much store is put in learning-by-doing and formal credentials like degrees and diplomas are to some degree replaceable by micro-credentials.  But most of the world of work doesn’t work that way.  And as a result, it’s important not to over-generalize future trends in education based on what happens to work in IT.  It’s sui generis.

Let tech be tech.  And let everything else be everything else.  Applying tech “solutions” to non-tech “problems” isn’t likely to end well.

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 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.

January 26

An Amazing Statscan Skills Study

I’ve been hard on Statscan lately because of their mostly-inexcusable data collection practices.  But every once in awhile the organization redeems itself.  This week, that redemption takes the form of an Analytical Studies Branch research paper by Marc Frenette and Kristyn Frank entitled Do Postsecondary Graduates Land High-Skilled Jobs?  The implications of this paper are pretty significant, but also nuanced and susceptible to over-interpretation.  So let’s go over in detail what this paper’s about.

The key question Frenette & Frank are answering is “what kinds of skills are required in the jobs in which recent graduates (defined operationally here as Canadians aged 25-34 with post-secondary credentials) find themselves”.  This is not, to be clear, an attempt to measure what skills these students possess; rather it is an attempt to see what skills their jobs require.  Two different things.  People might end up in jobs requiring skills they don’t have; alternatively, they may end up in jobs which demand fewer skills than the ones they possess.  Keep that definition in mind as you read.

The data source Frenette & Frank use is something called the Occupational Information Network (O*NET), which was developed by the US Department of Labour.  Basically, they spend ages interviewing employees, employers, and occupational analysts to work out skill levels typically required in hundreds of different occupations.  For the purpose of this paper, the skills analyzed and rated include reading, writing, math, science, problem solving, social, technical operation, technical design and analysis and resource management (i.e. management of money and people).  They then take all that data and transpose it onto Canadian occupational definitions.  So now they can assign skill levels to nine different dimensions of skills to each Canadian occupation.  Then they use National Household Survey data (yes, yes, I know), to look at post-secondary graduates and what kind of occupations they have.  On the basis of this, at the level of the individual, they can link highest credential received to the skills required in their occupation.  Multiply that over a couple of million Canadians and Frenette and Frank have themselves one heck of a database.

So, the first swing at analysis is to look at occupational skill requirements by level of education.   With only a couple of exceptions – technical operations being the most obvious one – these more or less all rise according to the level of education. The other really amusing exception is that apparently PhDs do not occupy/are not offered jobs which require management skills.  But it’s when they get away from level of education and move to field of study that things get really interesting.  To what extent are graduates from various fields of study employed in jobs that require,  for instance, high levels of reading comprehension or writing ability?  I reproduce Frenette & Frank’s results below.

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Yep.  You read that right.  Higher reading comprehension skill requirements are for jobs occupied by Engineers.  Humanities?  Not so much.

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It’s pretty much the same story with writing, though business types tend to do better on that measure.

ottsyd-20170125-3

…and critical thinking rounds out the set.

So what’s going on here?  How is it that that humanities (“We teach people to think!“) get such weak scores and “mere” professional degrees like business and engineering do so well?  Well, let’s be careful about interpretation.  These charts are not saying that BEng and BCom grads are necessarily better than BA grads at reading, writing and critical thinking, though one shouldn’t rule that out.  They’re saying that BEng and BCom grads get jobs with higher reading, writing and critical thinking requirements than do BAs.  Arguably, it’s a measure of underemployment rather than a measure of skill.  I’m not sure I personally would argue that, but it is at least arguable.

But whatever field of study you’re from, there’s a lot of food for thought here.  If reading and writing are such a big deal for BEngs, should universities wanting to give their BEngs a job boost spend more time giving them communication skills?  If you’re in social sciences or humanities, what implications do these results have for curriculum design?

I know if I were a university President, these are the kinds of questions I’d be asking my deans after reading this report.