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A Possible Strategy to Improve Post-Secondary Education and Training

By Jock Finlayson

The transition from school to work often poses significant challenges both for young people and the employers who hire them.  Over time, the economy is generating fewer jobs and career options for young adults who lack any education or credentials beyond a high school diploma.  For their part, many university and college graduates are finding the job market tough sledding, and a large proportion of graduates leave school with no clear idea as to what jobs or careers are available.  Policy-makers and business leaders are voicing concerns over a perceived labour market mis-match between the supply of and the demand for skills.  To the extent that such a mis-match exists and is sizable, it represents a loss of economic opportunity and implies that Canada is failing to fully mobilize its human resource potential.

A new report from the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE) examines these and other workforce-related issues, against the backdrop of an imminent and sustained slowdown in labour force growth rates across the country.  According to the author, Professor Ken Coates of the University of Saskatchewan, “…the development of the Canadian workforce through post-secondary education has evolved in a manner that is not sensitive to the job market.  It is driven by parental, student and governmental priorities with relatively little input or direction from the…business community.”  Of particular concern is that young adults are poorly informed about the labour market and often make decisions about post-secondary education or training on the basis of inadequate or misleading information.

Moving forward, Professor Coates calls for a new “national strategy” designed to bring labour supply and demand into closer alignment, and to help young people make sound education and career decisions.   Specifically, he identifies the following priority areas for action.

  • Improve the relevance, timeliness and quality of labour market information to assist young adults, new graduates and job-seekers in making good choices. The BC government is seeking to do this via new initiatives to bolster labour market data as part of its Skills for Jobs Blueprint unveiled last spring.
  • Put a stronger focus on “applied learning” within the post-secondary education (PSE) system.  This includes an expanded role for polytechnic education programs and a greater emphasis on work experience that is linked to institutional learning (e.g., apprenticeships, co-op programs).  
  • Directly promote enrolment in “high-demand, career-ready” education and training programs, including in polytechnics and the skilled trades.  The CCCE paper actually recommends cutting university seats in Canada by up to one quarter, and boosting capacity in polytechnics and career oriented college programs.  It also suggests using tailored financial incentives to attract more students into high-demand fields.  While this idea may have some appeal, the truth is that governments (and others) have a less than stellar record when it comes to forecasting the future demand for skills.  A list of today’s “high-demand” occupations is certain to differ from similar lists drawn up a decade ago or ten years hence. This underscores the continued benefits of generic and transferable skills; it also points to the desirability of fostering creativity and a passion for life-long learning among students at all levels.
  • Establish new “competency frameworks” to assess whether people’s existing knowledge and credentials accord with the skills needed for particular jobs and careers.   

Professor Coates is critical of current approaches to education and training in Canada, believing that they reflect “complacency and a reluctance to change".  Many business people will be inclined to share this view.  The post-secondary education and training sector is under growing pressure to re-tool and become more responsive to shifts in the economy and the wider society.  Most leaders of PSE institutions in British Columbia are well aware of these trends; they are not sitting still.