Canadians are among the most educated people in the world, according to the most recent OECD data. A full 58 percent among those aged 25 to 64 have a post-secondary degree. A higher level of education is an important advantage: post-secondary degrees correlate with increased productivity and, on average, about $25,000 more in salary per year compared to high-school graduates. Nonetheless, employers are expressing concerns over the education that graduates are receiving from Canadian universities, especially social science and humanities graduates.

The university graduate “skills gap”

Canadian employers are increasingly worried about a putative “skills gap.” They see a lack of alignment between the skills they need in workers and the skills they say these new graduates possess. This partly explains employers’ demands for universities to make “job readiness” more of a priority, a request that is complicated to implement, especially since it raises questions to which there are no universally accepted answers.

As we document in our upcoming report about the university graduate skills gap for social science and humanities students, some argue that universities do a good job of preparing graduates for the world of work while others suggest a gap is unavoidable because it takes too long for universities to adapt curricula after employers identify a need. Still others point out that while universities could be quicker and more nimble in adapting their curricula, it’s not at all clear that the employers asking them to do so understand their own needs adequately given an absence of real-time labour market information, inconsistent definitions and taxonomies, and rapid rates of change. And while students tend to report agreement with employers in feeling unready for the job market, there are also other significant issues to consider when transforming university education beyond the need to bridge the putative skills gap.

One of the hottest debates in this area is over the ways in which skills should be assessed. Some advocate for more standardized testing and point to test results that seem to show that graduates are not as well prepared for work as one might expect – though these findings have themselves been disputed. Others suggest that traditional assessments of non-cognitive skills – such as communication and interpersonal skills – which are increasingly the focus of employers’ concerns, are not particularly effective and argue that new approaches are necessary. For instance, there is evidence that a range of assessments, including more holistic approaches and self-reflection – such as project-based assessments or e-portfolios – would produce more accurate results. Naturally, additional and more sophisticated assessment techniques add costs, a trade-off that must also be considered.

Simultaneously, given that employers are themselves spending less and less on employee professional development, it is also reasonable to ask whether employers are simply asking universities to do more of their own jobs for them.

Efforts to address the graduate skills gaps 

Despite these qualms and uncertainties, universities, whose missions have always encompassed multiple purposes, are deploying more resources to increase their emphasis on explicit job-focused skill development and respond to calls to make their graduates more job-ready. In our research, we sorted these initiatives into four overarching categories:

  1. Program and curriculum-based (both regulated – engineering, law, medicine, for example – and non-regulated – business, computer science and journalism, for example – as well as professional minors and concentrations and specialized diplomas and certifications)
  2. Pedagogical work integrated learning (WIL) (including co-operative education, applied research and training, entrepreneurial incubators, internships, field placements and practica, and study abroad or exchange programs)
  3. Co-curricular skills development activities (such as the use of co-curricular records and self-directed professional development such as individual development plans)
  4. Career counselling and job placement services (including resumé and interview support, self-assessment tools, career mapping and job matching tools such as Magnet)

Noteworthy is the fact that one of the key objectives for many of these programs is to help respond to employers’ calls for enhanced “foundational,” “human,” or “soft skills,” such as social and emotional intelligence, critical thinking, intercultural communication and ethical reasoning – skills in which it is argued social science and humanities graduates are particularly strong.

One of the critical challenges for universities attempting to respond to employers’ concerns is in communicating what students know and can do in ways that are meaningful to both students and employers. In some cases, curriculum-based professional training is tied to degree-level expectations that are generally premised on specific learning objectives, assessment techniques and outcomes. But many institutions are also starting to provide co-curricular skills- development activities based on less traditional systems of badges, micro-credits or transcript notations. It is still early days for many of these initiatives and it has been argued that approaches to assessing and communicating the value of co-curricular skills-development opportunities need to be more systematic and concerted.

Further research needed

Unsurprisingly, assessing the extent to which an individual possesses “soft skills” such as critical thinking or emotional intelligence, then tracking the effectiveness of an attempt to enhance such capacities, is not straightforward. Given how very new many of these initiatives are – and how very many there are, often within the same institution – it should come as no surprise that more research is needed to determine the best approach to measuring effectiveness and progress, and, especially, to document hard-to-measure skills, such as those associated with social and emotional intelligence.

If the objective is at least in part to meet employers’ needs, one priority should be to understand how to adapt and enhance programs without inadvertently compromising other aspects of university education. For example, changes in curricula at the undergraduate level might affect capacity and the distribution of resources at the postgraduate level and, with it, the eco-system needed to support research and innovation.

In this vein, we’ve identified a number of questions that require further investigation:

  1. How universities are responding to growing demands to improve employability of graduates in social sciences and humanities through formal and informal approaches.
  2. More comprehensive mapping of programs that exist, their goals and structure, how they link to employer needs, the processes they use, the tools available to measure quality and effectiveness, and the ways that skill acquisition is documented or credentialed.
  3. The impact of these programs, including who participates, who benefits, and whether they result in improved employment outcomes.
  4. The particular impact of these programs on equity-seeking groups, including low-income people, racialized individuals, Indigenous people, persons with disabilities, women and LGBTQ2S+ people. This includes information on the extent to which individuals from these groups apply, are selected for, participate in, and succeed in these programs.
  5. Frameworks and definitions of skills, competencies, tools and techniques to help better connect employers and post-secondary institutions.
  6. How to promote collaboration across institutions to share best practices, replicate and scale what works.

Answering these questions is key to determining what needs to be done next and to ensuring that all stakeholders – students, universities, employers and governments – are equipped to succeed in the increasingly competitive global economy of the 21st century.

This article is part of Skills Next, a series of eight reports released in January 2020 by the Future Skills Centre, Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute and the Public Policy Forum.  Skills Next seeks to identify the most important issues currently impacting the skills ecosystem in Canada, and build a strong foundation intended to help support further research and strengthen policy-making.

Photo: Shutterstock by ridography731

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Sandra Lapointe
Sandra Lapointe est professeure de philosophie Ă  l’UniversitĂ© McMaster et directrice de projet de l’initiative The/La Collaborative, qui vise Ă  promouvoir les partenariats et l’application du savoir-faire liĂ©s aux connaissances en sciences humaines et sociales.
Jonathan Turner
Jonathan Turner leads the Research and Partnerships Committee for the Graduate and Postdoctoral Development Network. He is an Institutional Strategic Initiatives Officer at the University of Toronto.

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