How universities and employers can both fill Canada’s labor shortages — University Affairs

The economy needs more human skills. Universities and employers have the opportunity to take steps to address this issue.

In Lost Opportunities: Measuring the Unrealized Value of Job Vacancies in Canada (March 2022), the Conference Board of Canada writes: “We estimate that the unrealized value of job vacancies in the Canadian economy was $25 billion in 2020, equivalent to 1.3% of GDP.

Strikingly, of the 35 vacant skill areas they look at, almost all of the top 20 are ‘soft skills’ or ‘soft skills’. According to the Conference Board of Canada, “The six skills for which vacancies result in the highest costs are active listening, critical thinking, reading comprehension, speaking, monitoring and coordination. …. The cost of vacancies related to these skills was equivalent to $1 billion or more for each one. Neither math nor science is among the top 20 skill gap areas, coming in at 21 and 29 respectively out of 35, and “task-oriented and technical skills…are generally at the bottom of the list in terms of unrealized value” (emphasis in original).

Image: Conference Board of Canada, 2022. Lost Opportunities: Measuring the Unrealized Value of Job Vacancies in Canada

This analysis suggests that Canada is doing a good job of meeting its training needs in STEM trades and skills, which is great news. But it also suggests that further work needs to be done with Human vocational training, which is less good news.

Training in human skills is found, to varying degrees, in all disciplines, and it is a particular focus of the social and human sciences. Often the biggest challenge is helping students identify the skills they have learned in their courses, especially with employers. In this month’s column, I explore how universities and employers can work together to close the human skills gap in Canada.

How Universities Can Help Close the Human Skills Gap

When considering the list of vacancies, social sciences and humanities programs clearly have a great potential role to play. Critical thinking, writing, speaking, reading comprehension, social insight are all skill areas that social science and humanities programs traditionally claim to develop. For example, as seen in my last Skills Agenda column, UBC’s political science “rich transcript” shows how courses in the program train students in critical thinking, writing, understanding from reading, to speaking and social insight.

Unfortunately, few social studies and humanities programs make such explicit links between their learning outcomes and the development of professional skills. For many students (and, especially, their parents), the false trope of “liberal arts student as food server” persists.

As the Strada Institute for the Future of Work writes, “Most audiences are probably unaware, for example, that in recent years the growth of liberal arts graduates entering the tech workforce has actually outpaced the growth of computer science and engineering graduates.” Universities can play a role in helping students understand the links between social sciences and humanities curricula and career opportunities (For an example of how this could be done, see my column on the York University’s Envision YU initiative).

There are also opportunities for universities to find ways to bring more human skills training to other programs. In addition to requiring optional courses in the social sciences and humanities in all programs, universities could establish interdisciplinary certificate programs, such as the University of Saskatchewan’s Certificate in Global Studies, which develop people skills while by connecting to a variety of disciplinary areas. University learning centers can also work with programs and faculty members to adopt pedagogies that develop specific people skills, such as critical thinking or problem solving.

In addition to these options, there are exciting opportunities to develop innovative interdisciplinary study programs that combine social science and humanities disciplines with STEM disciplines. The current acronym on this front is STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math), but the extent to which this has really caught on in higher education programming is unclear.

Regardless of program focus, it is important that programs and courses are explicit in human skills training. As I have already mentioned, explicit teaching consists of adding the competency to the learning outcomes of the course/programme, integrating it into the assessment components of the course/programme and using the teaching time to allow students to actively practice the skill. Explicit instruction can help students see the connection between their skills and the job market.

How Employers Can Help Close the People Skills Gap

Universities can therefore do much to help students develop and articulate their people skills. But a persistent challenge for social sciences and humanities students is that employers don’t appreciate their value. Although they are trained in exactly the skill areas that employers need, employers are not clearly or actively looking for these graduates. To quote again from the Strada Institute for the Future of Work, “Employers do a poor job of signaling their needs. They tend to overload their job postings with a litany of difficult technical skills, then sprinkle in some soft people skills to communicate well, provide or receive feedback, or manage others well. It’s not enough for employers to say they’re looking for great communicators, critical thinkers, or collaborators.

The Conference Board report clearly shows that the greatest need of employers is indeed people skills. So in the future, employers may want to think about how to hire based on people skills first, job-specific technical skills being secondary. This could involve employer-based training or micro-degrees in a targeted area to complement a stronger social sciences and humanities degree program.

Employers may also wish to improve their relationships with universities in order to better understand the skills that students develop in different programs and to clearly articulate their needs as employers.

Among other things, students want to develop skills that they can use in their future careers. Among other things, universities want their students to experience professional success based on their university education. And employers want, among other things, to recruit talented employees to help them succeed. Universities and employers who communicate about their common interests benefit all parties.

Continue the #SkillsAgenda conversation

What do you think of how universities can help fill Canada’s human skills gap? Let me know by commenting below.

I look forward to hearing from you. Until next time, be well, my colleagues.