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May 7, 2013

Universities doing little to solve Canada's 'jobs without skills' problem

Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is doing it. Canadian Council of Chief Executives president John Manley is doing it. CIBC Deputy Chief Economist Benjamin Tal is doing it. What are they doing?

They are talking about the need for a comprehensive strategy in Canada to better align education and training to the skills employers need.

But what would the components of a “comprehensive strategy” be? Clearly, the first step must be identification of “the skills employers need” through educator/employer consultation. The second step is for educational institutions to give resource allocation priority to teaching those skills.

This may sound obvious and simple. But at public universities, the dominant players in our country’s educational establishment, both consulting with business and allocating resources to skills-short fields runs completely counter to an entrenched “academic freedom” culture.

University faculty unions fiercely defend an insular, professor-centred paradigm that turns away thousands of students applying to skills-short fields, while graduating huge numbers of students in programs with dismal employment prospects.

The net result of this dysfunctional situation is that the taxpayer money universities spend is doing little to solve our “jobs without skills” problem, while contributing greatly to our “skills without jobs” problem. Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development data shows that, while Canada has one of the world’s highest rates of university attendance, we rank second last in producing graduates able to find “high skill level” employment.

Fortunately, the picture is much more positive at the ivory tower free side of our post-secondary educational system: Canada’s 130 community colleges, institutes and polytechnics. In a letter to the Globe and Mail last October, Association of Canadian Community Colleges president and CEO James Knight wrote “ ... Canada’s public colleges ... are mandated to meet the demand for highly skilled business, technical, health and trades professionals required by employers. Higher education in colleges is characterized by close ties with industry, exceptional student and employer satisfaction and high placement rates (85 to 95 per cent within six months of graduation).”

This enlightened approach to help solve the skills gap by consulting with employers and allocating resources to where the jobs are is good news indeed. But there is also bad news. Our community colleges are seriously short of resources.

Thousands of qualified students are turned away each semester because there aren’t enough spaces. The ratio of applicants to acceptances for some of the most in-demand programs range from five to 10 to one. Ironically, an increasing number of those applicants are university graduates who discover there is no market for their costly university training. They then have to “double-dip” taxpayer funds to get a job.

Given this perplexing picture, how can our country’s skills shortage be alleviated? The answer to that question is not more taxpayer dollars. Education is primarily a provincial responsibility and most provinces are already running unsustainably high deficits. The federal government is tightening spending as it strives to eliminate its deficit. So the only place the funds can come from is existing education budgets.

Universities receive the bulk of that money, giving them ample ability to reallocate funds to skills-short fields. It’s past time for provincial education ministers to step up to the plate and make this happen.

CIBC deputy chief economist Benjamin Tal, author of a report on the mismatch between skills and jobs, recently told Maclean’s magazine: “We need to make sure what universities are producing is more relevant to tomorrow’s labour markets. If it means reducing subsides for occupations that are not relevant, so be it.”

But where do community colleges get the money they need to expand training spaces?

The Association of Canadian Community Colleges’ recent prebudget brief disclosed that its members need $6 billion in new facilities to house expanded capacity. What about reallocating some of the $6 billion per year going to university research, the great bulk of which is for academic interest with little or no chance of yielding useful results?

These may sound like radical measures, but the economic future of the country is at stake. And so is the ability for young people across Canada to get the training needed for a fulfilling and productive career.

Gwyn Morgan is a retired Canadian business leader who has been a director of five global corporations. (Troy Media/

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