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.