Decades of research and millions of dollars spent examining the relationship between post-secondary education and the future of work have taught us two important lessons. First, aside from identifying broad trends, we cannot accurately predict what jobs will be available in the future nor in what numbers, nor at what times. Second, there is no clear relationship between a particular post-secondary credential or field of study and a specific job. These conclusions hold true even in regulated professions, where one might think a relationship between specific credentials and job supply and demand would be readily apparent.

This doesn’t mean we should stop asking questions about education and jobs. These are critically important issues for countries that wish to foster competitive, knowledge-based economies. And the fact remains that in Canada the education system represents the greatest public investment we make in job training, no matter how many marginal and boutique programs are mounted by provincial and federal governments to promote skill acquisition.

The first step in developing better policy and programs for any issue, including the future of work, is to ask the right questions. Yet apart from some minor tweaks, Canada continues to spend millions of dollars asking the same questions we have in the past — such as where tomorrow’s jobs will be and which fields of study will prepare students for them. If we are to get more meaningful and useful information about the relationship between education and work, we would be well advised to remember the admonition of John Maynard Keynes, who wrote in the preface to The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, “The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify…into every corner of our minds.”

Our work at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) tries to escape from the old ideas and explore promising and useful new ones to inform better policy and practice for education and work. We start by asking this: What should a post-secondary education look like in a world where workplaces are more precarious and volatile, where we don’t know what jobs students will have when they graduate, where graduates are likely to change careers five to seven times during their working lives and, most critically, where a substantial percentage of the jobs that will be available haven’t yet been created, contemplated or imagined? This question leads us to one inescapable conclusion: post-secondary education should focus on the skills and competencies that will prepare graduates — regardless of their field of study — for success in work and life.

But what are these skills?

Higher education has always contended that its graduates should possess disciplinary knowledge; basic cognitive skills such as well-developed literacy and numeracy; higher-order cognitive skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and good communication; and behavioural attributes (sometimes called “soft” or “transferable” skills) such as resilience, persistence and determination. Surveys of what employers seek in prospective hires identify exactly the same set of skills, with particular emphasis on the cognitive and soft skills. In the current angst and controversy over the “skills gap,” there is a significant difference of opinion between educators and employers over whether graduates have these skills: educators assert that they do, and employers (and increasingly students) say they do not.

Much of the debate over the skills gap relies on surveys, opinions, attitudes and rhetorical flourishes. But the most direct and meaningful way to assess the skills gap is to directly measure the employment-related skills of post-secondary graduates using psychometrically rigorous tests. Measuring skills and competencies is a staple of elementary and secondary education but largely absent from the post-secondary sector.

HEQCO recently completed two large-scale trials, involving more than 7,500 students at 20 colleges and universities, that measured skills and competencies such as literacy, numeracy and critical thinking in entering and graduating post-secondary students. The results of the trials are published in a report, On Test: Skills, Summary of Findings from HEQCO’s Skills Assessment Pilot Studies. Figure 1 shows the results of one trial using an internationally accepted test that measures literacy and numeracy, Education & Skills Online (developed by the OECD in collaboration with countries such as Canada). This test categorizes students into levels, with level 3 being generally understood to reflect the basic competency required to navigate today’s world. The post-secondary educators we sampled suggested that their graduates should have achieved levels 4/5.

We found that about 25 percent of students scored at levels 1 and 2, 45 percent scored at level 3, and 25 to 30 percent were at level 4/5, with results somewhat worse for numeracy than for literacy at level 4/5. These results indicate that too many students are graduating with inadequate levels of skills and too few with superior skills. While we see some gain in skills between the first year and the final year for some students, we do not see much improvement in the aggregate over the course of post-secondary programs.

There are two important policy implications from our findings.

First, the most important link between post-secondary education and the world of work is undoubtedly skills. Employers need to clearly articulate the skills they seek and regard as necessary for job success, and they are increasingly doing so. Furthermore, employers are abandoning their long-standing reliance on credentials and institutional reputation when recruiting and screening new employees, and they are becoming increasingly reliant on evidence of skills. Post-secondary institutions need to do a better job of measuring skills, credentialing them and, based on the research we and others are doing, teaching them.

Second, we need to find more effective modes of teaching skills, especially to nontraditional learners. Education policy in Canada tends to focus on the 18-to-24-year-old learner who attends a traditional institution that still delivers programs in traditional ways. But nontraditional learners may well now be the majority of learners who need to acquire or enhance their skills to participate fully in today’s labour market. It’s high time for Canada to get serious about lifelong learning. We need more institutions to offer alternative programs such as competency-based education. As well, we need more places like Western Governors University, a nonprofit US institution that targets nontraditional learners, teaches using customized programs delivered online, provides individual mentors, and grants credentials that are recognized and valued by employers. The labour outcomes of its programs are impressive — and the cost to students is lower than what most Canadians pay for an undergraduate program.

This article is part of the Preparing citizens for the future of work special feature.

Photo: Shutterstock, by Elijah Lovkoff.

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