The New Deal for Skills-Based Graduates

by Alex Paterson. Posted September 17, 2012


Unemployment rates remain high and the latest data shows an uptick. Why is this, when so many businesses and companies are desperate for trained workers?

The key to addressing this disconnect is to bring balance to the supply and demand for postsecondary graduates. In many sectors, this equation has lost its equilibrium. The proof is found across numerous communities and in many market segments where people’s skills just don’t match the available jobs.

Postsecondary education has been producing a steady supply of graduates, without enough attention to the demand side of the equation. In fact, our success in turning out graduates is in many ways adding to the supply-demand imbalance. The mantra of ‘build it and they will come’ does not serve colleges or their communities well in the short or long term.

The move towards the knowledge-based economy has been underway for decades, gaining momentum and fuelled by capitalism taking flight around the globe with China, India, Brazil and Russia garnering much of the attention. With traditionally weaker economies expanding and driving the emerging economic powers up the value chain the trend for specific-skilled jobs and workers will only accelerate.

How did we get to this point of imbalance? The knowledge-based economy shift has moved many low-skilled, high-paying jobs offshore and left low-paying, high-skilled and professional jobs requiring specific technical skills within our borders. We are faced with the need to raise the education attainment level of our population to ensure we have the skilled labour force needed for continued prosperity.

The framework for responding to this need has created a rush to increase student enrolment without the necessary focus and has yielded undesirable results –an undersupply of graduates in key disciplines, infrastructure that will become increasingly difficult to sustain, and most notably, a lack of innovative solutions and initiatives leading to a slow re-tooling of postsecondary programs.

Our habitual response has failed to recognize two key factors. First, the pool of skilled labour continues to shrink, which creates an urgent need to match graduates to marketplace needs. Second, the conventional way of supplying graduates is unfocused and does not ensure opportunities are met. This is evidenced by the gap between the individual skill sets, high unemployment rates and the unsatisfied needs of the knowledge-based economy.

Today, the economy does not have the capacity to absorb this historical level of waste nor should these historical shortcomings be accepted.

In the past, the unfocused supply could be absorbed within the fabric of the economy, masking inefficiency both in terms of financial and human costs. Today, the economy does not have the capacity to absorb this historical level of waste nor should these historical shortcomings be accepted. The continuance of the old system, primarily focused on supply, is irrational and does not address the challenge before us.

What is required is a new focused framework that is relative to today; that has direct links between the postsecondary student and the employer, with higher education acting as the conduit of knowledge and skill… a new deal that formalizes the link between the employer and future employee – the current student. And most importantly, a strong resolve by the private sector to work with colleges to close the skills shortage gap before it becomes lethal to the health of our economy.

The private sector has been too complacent in redefining and articulating its needs as well as expressing these needs to government, students, and parents – the public at large. Their demands on the education sector to provide specific training has been, for the most part, absent in the public forum.

An action-based approach that flips the current supply-demand approach to a demand-supply model is the most effective and efficient means to close the gap between individuals and the required skill sets, thereby returning balance to the education equation. The need for human capital is unmitigated for industries from finance to manufacturing and construction, according to forecasts from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. Projected shortfalls of workers range from 200,000 to 1.8 million by 2031 according Dr. Rick Miner’s study Jobs Without People and People Without Jobs.

We need a resolute and focused plan that moves us to address the imbalance of our labour supply, where skill sets do not meet opportunity. This demand-driven approach requires a framework that includes proactive human resource planning in the province, a revenue and tax model that accelerates capital investment by the private sector and a learning and skill development incentive program shared by the public and private sector. While targeted investment directed at individual sectors may not be popular or palatable in some jurisdictions, the need to address the skills shortfall requires quick and decisive action. We must do things differently and not be bound by standard conventions to meet our commitments and obligations.

As a college, we will continually evolve our programs and services to fulfill our mandate. This translates into constantly innovating and investing in new programs and services with the support and foresight of industry partners, individuals, alumni and government while divesting from others. A vibrant college always continues to evolve and renew.

A healthy economy, excellent healthcare, high quality education, positive business conditions and secure retirement are dependent upon us reestablishing balance to the education equation by eliminating the gap between the skills shortage and those required by the marketplace.