There has been much debate in Canada recently about a “skills gap.” According to some, the gap between the skills that employers want and need and those presented by graduates is wide and widening. The Conference Board of Canada says it threatens to swallow Canada’s future prosperity, like a Florida sinkhole, with up to $24 billion a year in losses in Ontario alone. But others, such as the TD Bank Group’s research division, TD Economics, claim that this concern is largely unwarranted: most of the labour-market issues for new graduates are cyclical after-effects of the recession – more of a freeze-thaw pothole than a sinkhole.
But just because the analysts can’t agree on what story to tell doesn’t mean we can avoid the issue. The truth, as it often does, probably lies somewhere in the middle: even the alarmist reports note that university graduates continue to find jobs more readily than other people. Yet, even those reports reflect the perceptions of employers about the preparedness of graduates entering the workforce.
As a behaviourist, I know that perception is enough to motivate action and advocacy, especially when the facts are inaccessible or in dispute. Advocacy begets policy, and policy begets mandates, so if people are worried about a “skills gap” we need to address it.
First, let’s point out that despite the erroneous focus of some commentators, any skills gap is not purely a problem of postsecondary education. Recent results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (or PISA), which tests 15-year-old students in OECD countries, show declining performance in reading, math and science. If universities must spend proportionally more of their curriculum on essentially remedial material, they will have a harder time building the expertise employers seek.
Many people assume that the skills in most severe shortage are those related to the STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering and math. True, to some extent. But just as society today puts a higher value on a highly technical workforce, so too has the value of technical qualifications increased – higher demand leads to higher pay. And yet students still vote with their feet: they are applying in large numbers for university programs in the arts, humanities and social sciences. I’m not sure that universities should be pushing students into certain fields to rebalance the labour market (or to lower the cost to employers of hiring technically skilled workers).
What the debate about a skills gap overlooks is that “enhancing employment suitability” (or a good starting salary) is not the main purpose of a university education. If society wants nothing but narrowly focused technical and vocational training, there are other options where the supposedly quaint notion of a liberal education will not be a distraction. But liberal education – the broad exposure to multiple disciplines and paradigms of reasoning – is not just a luxury for the ambition-impaired. In the words of Bart Giamatti: “Fear not, you will not be impeded from making a living because you have learned to think for yourself and because you take pleasure in the operation of the mind and in the pursuit of new ideas.” What sets universities apart from any other postsecondary option is the attempt to balance focused specialization with a broad foundation in the epistemology of the human condition. More prosaically: to balance majors with breadth requirements.
Moreover, the skills at the root of the “gap” are not the STEMs but the “soft” skills that a liberal education excels at developing. In the Conference Board’s report, the skill sets said to be most in demand are, in order: managerial/supervisory, communications/interpersonal, leadership/executive, and process/project management. Yes, there are technical aspects to all these skills that can be learned from specialized training. But true expertise comes from knowing how humans think and act, how they communicate with and motivate others, and how they work together productively. Technical training imparts the ability to solve complex problems in a chosen field; a liberal education prepares the mind to reimagine those problems as opportunities, and to forge collaborative solutions.
The default narrative I discussed a few columns back insists on undervaluing liberal education, partly because these benefits are more implicit and less easily quantified than the STEM fields. It is in the interest of the arts, humanities and social sciences departments to develop better ways to demonstrate the skills they impart to students and graduates. If skills are the new currency, then we need to ensure that we are not leaving transactions off the ledger.