Last week, Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) finally released a call for proposals for the creation of what had been called a “Future Skills Lab” in the early 2017 report of the Advisory Council on Economic Growth. ESDC now plans to fund two entities: a Future Skills Centre and a Future Skills Council. The former will fund, analyze, and disseminate research on skills, and the latter will be a consultative and advisory body. The basic architecture of this initiative has met early criticism on two counts. The Mowat Centre sketched out how disengagement of the provinces in its formulation and governance is a non-starter, since they are ultimately responsible for implementing skills training and development policy. Alex Usher has raised serious questions about, to put it mildly, the dubious feasibility of the centre ESDC hopes to fund out of this competition.
These two issues are critical and should give pause to ESDC and to the federal government, which is ultimately responsible for it. However, let’s say that both problems are magically solved within the next five weeks or so. Would that justify this $363 million investment in a new organization focusing on skills?
One answer to that question might be: we need to know more about the skills employers need and how best to teach them, hence, the Future Skills Centre will address a real need that would otherwise not be met. That would be right if we did not have well-established agencies with the expertise and experience to do these kinds of things.
Statistics Canada could easily run a survey of employers focusing on skills, if they were given funding to do so. Indeed, the 2009 report of the Advisory Panel on Labour Market Information emphasized the role that the agency could play in improving the collection and availability of data from employers. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) could as easily manage a grant funding program on skills; it has routinely administered special initiatives focused on targeted research areas or problems. Neither StatsCan nor SSHRC would need to come up with new organizational structures, staff, and routines to do so, as this kind of work falls well within their remits.
Another answer might be: it is not enough to fund or do the research, we need a way to disseminate results about skills to students, employers, and educators. Again, SSHRC has supported knowledge mobilization for a long time through multiple funding instruments with its Connection Program. Groups who focus on creating multi-sectoral partnerships, collaborating on the dissemination of research, and summarizing evidence to support policy and practice are able to apply for small and large grants to accomplish those goals.
Hence, existing institutions could be harnessed in a national effort to bolster knowledge on skills and create government-industry-higher education partnerships around skills development. It would certainly be more efficient to rely on established entities when it comes to funding projects by third parties and running large national surveys. Still, one might argue that there is a need for a champion, a dedicated organization that will work collaboratively across sectors, provinces, and industries.
That would not require hastily funding the envisioned Future Skills Centre, which will likely spend half of its six-year mandate learning how to do its job effectively. Strategic capacity to set goals and policy directions for these investments could be built in a body working across the relevant agencies (ESDC, SSHRC, StatsCan), preferably involving industry and provincial/territorial governments from the start. For instance, the Future Skills Council might have been given a less ornamental function, including the strategic direction and oversight of funding programs administered through SSHRC and StatsCan, and even the initiation of collaborations among stakeholder groups.
All of this concerns the “how” this could be done – but there is also the “what.” The notion that the government should have a special focus on skills has been either taken for granted or applauded, as the skills gospel has become a mainstream way of thinking in the policy community. The gospel elevates “skills” as a core concern of governments, employers and educators, conceptualizing it as the key attribute of workers that determines their employability and productivity.
While couched in rhetoric of anticipating economic needs and helping individuals succeed in the labour market, the gospel is fundamentally mired in a very short-term perspective. It emphasizes what employers believe they need now or in the very near future, and seeks to create subsidized systems through which training will be deployed quickly to prepare potential workers to meet such demand.
In doing so, this gospel places the need for skills in an ether devoid of long-term considerations such as the career development of individuals over their lifetime or the nature of postsecondary education. It ignores the roles of human cognition, tacit knowledge, and expertise, construing of workers as automatons that either possess or lack discrete skills. It is this conception of individuals that leads to the conclusion that people must be spoon-fed reliable information about which technical ability they should acquire next as they suffer the vagaries of the shifting labour market; this is one of the objectives of the Future Skills Centre.
Attention to skills is well and good as a workforce training issue; one which large companies are well-positioned to address on their own, along with industry associations and chambers of commerce that bring together firms of all sizes. Absent greater mobilization from industry to address shortages of qualified workers, and hard evidence of actual problems that go beyond the anecdotes of perceived skills gaps, is there a compelling justification for this “Future Skills” agenda? Even if one agrees that there is benefit to be gained from more research and information on the subject, these goals could arguably be achieved through existing institutions and programs, rather than by taking a gamble on an entirely new outfit.