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Linking the Education System with the Changing Nature of Work

By Kristine St-Laurent

The Canadian education system is struggling to keep up-to-date with a dynamic and unsettled economic landscape and the prospect of disruptive transformations in the job market.  The public policy response to Canada’s workforce challenges has been inconsistent and fragmented across sectors, resulting in a workforce whose expectations may be misaligned in some respects with market realities.  An ill-prepared next generation of workers arguably is visible in the increasing supply of over-educated, under-employed individuals participating in the Canadian workforce.[1]  Not preparing future generations for job market demands represents a sub-optimal use of educational resources and missed opportunities for individuals, employers and society as a whole to reap the full benefits of a well-educated and skilled population.  

To start, the public K-12 curriculum is lagging.  Over the past ten years, education outcomes in Canada have failed to keep pace with rising global standards – a concerning trend.  In relation to other OECD countries, Canadian students are making only marginal advancements in reading, math and science.[2]  These fields are the foundation for reasoning, problem solving, and building advanced skills, including in STEM-related disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math).  The current emphasis on low-pressure teaching and social promotion in the K-12 system also contributes to a decrease in educational attainment rankings relative to international peers.[3] A growing number of Canadian families are voting with their feet by rejecting the public education system in place of results-oriented private schools or after-school tutoring centres.  Students educated by these private institutions appear to match or exceed outcomes reported by mainline public schools across all measures for education, employment and productivity.[4]  

At the post-secondary level, too many students are encouraged to eschew “blue collar” and technical work, despite the rising levels of technical proficiency required in a world where many traditional jobs are being displaced by technology.  In the absence of technical skillsets, many students are pushed to pursue generic liberal arts degrees, thereby flooding the market with young people with skills that may not align with workforce demands. Worse yet, a lack of readily accessible information often makes it hard for students to develop a sense of medium and long-term employment prospects in the modern economy.[5]    

Although there is not today a widespread skills shortage in Canada, educational trends in combination with changes in the demand for talent point to potential skill shortages in the future.  As a country, Canada is weakest in producing STEM skills in its post-secondary graduates.  Perhaps more alarming, women are badly underrepresented in STEM-related occupations, holding only 30% of the relevant jobs.  

Unsurprisingly, there is a correlation between countries that invest in the right kinds of education and skills development and those that punch above their weight in innovation and productivity.  Canada’s record is less than stellar on both counts.  A more comprehensive policy response to building a 21st century workforce should include better preparing younger generations for the changing labour market – and this needs to start in the education system.