Harvey P. Weingarten – Postsecondary education and jobs: It’s a question of skills

Harvey P. Weingarten

Harvey P. Weingarten, President & CEO

This week, we released a study examining the relationship between the supply of graduates from six regulated professions – medicine, law, teaching, architecture, engineering, nursing – and the labour demand for these graduates.  The historical evidence provided in that analysis is clear – we never get it right! We either oversupply or undersupply.

This conclusion is no revelation to anyone who follows past attempts to link postsecondary education to jobs.  There is no privileged or direct pipeline between specific fields of study/programs/degrees and specific jobs.  This conclusion is reinforced by HEQCO analyses  that students from particular fields of study go into a wide range of jobs and conversely that people in specific jobs come from a wide range of postsecondary fields of study and degree programs.  At a conceptual level, this inability to match programs with specific jobs should not be surprising.  Programs represent how postsecondary institutions structure themselves administratively and occupations are often categorized by federally established National Occupation Classifications (NOC).  While these entities had some historical validity, there are considerable dynamics and drift in fields of study and the jobs out there.

The evidence – no matter how much policy makers, politicians and students would like it to be otherwise – is compelling and incontrovertible.  Given the ways we now approach the problem, it is impossible to figure out how many people we should enrol in a specific postsecondary program to fill, but not overfill, the expected number of specific jobs.  If we can’t do this in regulated professions, as our current paper demonstrates, we certainly can’t do it in political science, chemistry or management.

So, do we just abandon trying to understand the relationship between postsecondary education and the workplace?  Absolutely not.  A primary reason governments support a public postsecondary system is to graduate students who will feed the economy and fill available jobs. Every student survey I know shows that the dominant (not necessarily the exclusive) reason students attend postsecondary is to get the credentials necessary to get a good job.

It is time, though, to accept the evidence and start to ask different, smarter, more contemporary and more relevant questions about the alignment between postsecondary education and jobs.   These promising questions centre on skills.

Skills represent the common vocabulary that can align what is learned in postsecondary education and the demands of current jobs.  The good news is that we are moving in this direction.  A host of recent surveys have demonstrated remarkable consensus and convergence about the skills employers believe are most essential for success in today’s jobs.  Measurement of skills is becoming increasingly prominent in postsecondary education, as are attempts to link skills, such as critical thinking, to jobs and labour market outcomes).  To move forward – to solve the alignment problem between postsecondary education and jobs and to solve the skills gap– we need colleges and universities to do a better job of measuring and credentialing skills (not just the traditional transcript of what courses a student took, the grades they obtained and the credential they received) and employers to do a better job of identifying the specific skills necessary for success in particular jobs.

Talking the common language of skills can fix the current misalignment and confusion about what goes on in our postsecondary institutions and jobs and labour markets.

Talking about skills has the added advantage of allowing us to answer important questions about the labour markets of the future if we want Canada’s economy to be robust, competitive and successful.  Questions such as:

What skills should students acquire in their postsecondary education given that they are to change jobs five to seven times during their working careers?

What skills should students acquire in their postsecondary education given that a high percentage of jobs these students will have in their working careers have not yet been created or contemplated?

What pedagogical techniques or student experiences are the most effective ways of students learning necessary job-related skills?

The past ways we have asked the important question about the relationship between postsecondary education and jobs have not been helpful.  I know it is hard to forget how we acted in the past.  It is time, though, to ask questions that can give students, governments and employers the information and answers they seek.  That turns us to the promising perspective of skills.

Thanks for reading.

4 responses to “Harvey P. Weingarten – Postsecondary education and jobs: It’s a question of skills”

  1. […] Harvey P. Weingarten, President & CEO Summary from Academica Top Ten – Monday, November 14, 2016: "“It is impossible” to match graduation rates with labour market demand, writes HEQCO president “[We] never get it right! We either oversupply or undersupply” when it comes to graduation rates for regulated professions, writes Harvey Weingarten, president of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. The author argues that one of the reasons that graduation rates are never in sync with labour market demand is because “there is no privileged or direct pipeline between specific fields of study/programs/degrees and specific jobs.” Citing a recently published HEQCO study, Weingarten concludes that “the evidence—no matter how much policy makers, politicians and students would like it to be otherwise—is compelling and incontrovertible … it is impossible to figure out how many people we should enrol in a specific postsecondary program to fill, but not overfill, the expected number of specific jobs.”"  […]

  2. Brad Halibert says:

    Absolutely agree.

    As a fairly recent graduate with a Mathematics major, having these questions you raised answered, or at the very least, some common ground with industry established would have been the world of difference. My degree/major is by no means regulated, or even that well known to industry and as such run in to the same question over and over..”What does a math major even do?”.

    Had there been some more insight from both ends (industry and university) as to exactly what skills this major developed and how graduates were able to think would have allowed a more direct line to sell myself to employers. That is, employers looking to fill technical positions want analytical, logical thinkers, but apparently had no idea that a math major was able to fill this type of role.

    I believe this gap between industry and universities is shrinking and there is much more communication between what employers are looking for and what majors are being graduated (specifically thinking about co-operative education). Having said that, I think there will always be those ‘fuzzy’ lines between what industry needs and what universities are graduating. Given the time it takes for economic change to occur and the rates at which students graduate, syncing the two up is by no means impossible, but certainly not simple.

    All the best!

  3. Michael Baumann says:

    Thank you, Dr. Weingarten, an insightful article, as always.

    That said, I am sceptical about two premises in the questions:
    1: “… given that they are to change jobs five to seven times during their working careers”
    2: “… given that a high percentage of jobs these students will have in their working careers have not yet been created or contemplated”

    As the director of a university career centre I hear these statements often, unfortunately always without a reference. I would be glad to know who made those predictions.

    Kind regards.

    • Peter DeCourcy says:

      I concur with Michael’s skepticism about the above two points. The second one is particularly pernicious since it is usually used to argue for skills-based curricula rather than knowledge-based. While it’s true that the career “iPad App Developer” had not been created 10 years ago (or contemplated), the job did not appear ex nihilo. There was a defined knowledge that could be transferred more easily than other kinds of knowledge to the new career. So-called “generic skills” like creativity and critical thinking are unlikely to help one become an app developer unless one already has a computer programming background. As numerous researchers have argued, the best predictor of a skilled performance is robust background knowledge.

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