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In my opinion

Misalignment between employers’ perceived skills needs and SSH’s ability to meet them provides opportunity to articulate value of SSH

There is no reason collaborative skills cannot be cultivated in SSH students as much as those associated with innovation and adaptability.

BY SANDRA LAPOINTE | APR 14 2021

Foundational Skills Needs and What Social Sciences and Humanities Need To Know was produced with a number of Canadian postsecondary stakeholders in mind: chairs, committees, and deans in social sciences and humanities (SSH) and arts faculties who make decisions about curriculum; members of senior leadership whose role is to support SSH programing and research; and those in the Canadian SSH research and innovation ecosystem responsible for cultivating knowledge and talent in increasingly complex, collaborative and interdisciplinary conditions.

The report, published in February by McMaster University’s The/La Collaborative, an initiative dedicated to fostering better partnerships and talent-building around SSH knowledge, starts by drawing a picture of employers’ claims about skills needs, focusing on their claims about the “soft”, “social”, “human”, “transferable” and/or “global” competencies that are increasingly associated with an SSH education. For all of us in SSH – I am a historian of the study of mind, language and logic in a philosophy department – this knowledge is power. At the very least, we need to have principled reasons to respond, or not, to the demands industry, government and the private sector make on our institutions. In order to take the skills narrative into our own hands, we need to understand in our own terms what these demands are and, assuming this falls within our academic mission, what we can do about them.

We developed an analytical framework that could be expanded and used as a meta-cognitive toolkit to help articulate the value of SSH know-how. This seemed to be especially useful in a context where workforce disruptions are increasingly frequent; it would allow SSH graduates to think with an appropriate level of literacy about the ways the skills they acquire through their education can be articulated and applied in various contexts.

We then assessed the disconnect between employers’ perceptions of their own skills needs and SSH’s perceptions of their capacity to meet them. Predictably, SSH generally consider that it falls within their purview to help build the skills employers identify as central to innovation and adaptability, such as critical thinking, effective problem-solving, creativity and analytical skills. However, the skills associated with social, emotional and ethical intelligence — judgement, integrity, teamwork, self-management and intercultural awareness — are almost completely and universally overlooked as if SSH were not a fruitful ground to cultivate them. This, to us, was puzzling.

What explains this oversight, in my opinion, is not an incapacity in principle on the part of SSH, but gaps in our knowledge. The claims SSH programs make about foundational skills-building on their websites are not informed by scientific evidence. They may reflect more or less accurate and dispassionate readings of managerial expectations or academic market trends. By the same token, instructors themselves may lack the literacy and/or the willingness to embrace these claims.

However, knowledge gaps are not the only factor. SSH researchers are understandably wary of being perceived to be the means of corporate gain. SSH culture is skeptical. We are trained to be critical, and we are right to resist instrumentalizing curriculum. What we value lies in human and social good. We aim to better social institutions and promote human flourishing. Some of us might even believe that research and teaching that supports the creation of economic, legal, political and social institutions that reflect a commitment to fairness and inclusive citizenship are incompatible with serving the needs of industry. But herein lies the mistake.

Strong, resilient and just social institutions, just like excellent SSH research, must draw on the participation of individuals who have the relevant competencies. We must expect that whatever positions they land, foundational skills will be needed. When they don’t pursue academic careers, SSH graduates overwhelmingly populate the public and not-for-profit sectors. They must have foundational skills to ensure that the organizations and institutions in which they partake fulfil their purposes and thrive. As is the case in industry settings, employees in the academic, public and not-for-profit sectors need the skills to innovate and adapt, and to work with others in ways that show social, emotional and ethical intelligence.

The so-called “collaborative skills” — teamwork, effective communication, self-management and intercultural awareness— are especially important. Employers need employees who have those skills, but the SSH research ecosystem does as well. Collaborative skills do feature among those aspects of talent SSHRC considers to be essential to excellence in research; partnered, interdisciplinary and collaborative projects are increasingly encouraged and rewarded. Collaborative skills, however, are effectively amongst the hardest to foster meaningfully, and for students at the postgraduate level, these deficiencies are eminently present where research training revolves solely around individual supervision.

The misalignment between SSH’s understanding of what employers need and what employers in fact say they need raises a number of questions, many of which point to missed opportunities for SSH to take control of the narrative around talent and re-affirm the academic mission without frustrating unexpected allies. When I think about what we’ve discovered with our research I see potential for SSH disciplines to grow and regain much of the terrain they’ve lost over the course of the last decades. As I see it, the misalignment between the perceived needs of industry and Canadian universities’ mandate does not reflect a deficit on the part of SSH, but rather represents an opportunity to articulate their value.

Sandra Lapointe is a professor of philosophy and director of The/La Collaborative at McMaster University.

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