A few weeks ago, Canadian economist Don Drummond released his much-anticipated report, outlining a series of recommendations for the Ontario government to avoid hitting a projected deficit of $30.2 billion by 2017–18. Among the list of cost-cutting initiatives, Drummond recommended post-secondary education (PSE) funding be contained to an increase of 1.5 per cent annually. Post-secondary enrolment is expected to outstrip that, rising at 1.7 per cent each year.
Backtrack one year. A report, aptly titled People without jobs, jobs without people, is published that details the future of Ontario’s labour market. It predicts Ontario could face a shortage of up to 1.8 million workers in two decades as the baby boomer generation retires.
Interestingly enough, the same report also predicted that by 2031, 77 per cent of jobs would require some form of post-secondary training—university, college, apprenticeship, or industry. As it stands, 60 per cent of Ontarians have some post-secondary education.
Last week, the Toronto Regional Research Alliance released a report stating for every seven job openings in the Greater Toronto Area, there is just one qualified recent graduate of a post-secondary program—a trend that will persist as students continue to shy away from the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.
Beyond indicating a serious love of report writing amongst Canadians, this series of events outlines the set of challenges facing both our post-secondary institutions and the labour market during a time characterized by fiscal constraint, shrinking labour force, and growing demand for post-secondary graduates.
In short, we have people without jobs, and jobs without people.
There are many mechanisms by which the federal or provincial governments can address these conflicting concerns. Immigration policy can be changed to allow more workers—particularly skilled workers—into our labour force, and regulations can be altered to facilitate the transfer of skills across borders, allowing immigrants with PSE credentials to work in their country of choice.
There needs to be a concerted effort—emphasis on the word “concerted”—across the levels of government to increase access to PSE institutions amongst those groups that are traditionally under-represented at colleges and universities. Governments should also create a national database containing the earnings outlook for different occupations across the country, while placing an emphasis on marketing the STEM fields critical to innovation and productivity—two keys to prosperity in our knowledge-based economy.
Despite the opportunities for government intervention, the disconnect between the education and labour markets during a time of limited financial resources provides an opportunity for PSE institutions to save themselves.
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, universities—though often touted as the marketplace of ideas and exchange of information—are underwhelming in terms of innovation, responsiveness, and efficiency when it comes to their operations. As the public spending on universities has declined in the past decade, universities have an incentive to accept more graduates irrespective of their desired field of study. There is little thought to the labour market, and enrolment rates do not reflect the rates of (un)employment in various disciplines.
The challenges posed by the needs of the labour market create a unique opportunity for Canadian universities to fix the broken model under which they’ve been operating for decades.
When it comes to getting more people into PSE institutions, universities need to reach out to high schools and make the opportunities available to students through PSE more clear, particularly those high schoolers who aren’t making it past Grade 12.
And what fields these students will enter also matters. The university programs offered to students should reflect the demands of both applicants and labour market conditions. Although it’s difficult to predict which fields we’ll need most a decade or two from now, we can be sure we aren’t producing enough STEM graduates in Canada as it stands.
To ensure students are securing meaningful work upon graduation, universities need to build more partnerships within the surrounding community in order to offer more co-op placements to their students. They need to partner with local colleges and offer students joint degrees that will give them both cognitive and practical skill sets, as an increasing number of university graduates are resorting to secondary college diplomas upon facing poor job prospects after graduation.
Universities also need to experiment with online education, particularly as there is a growing need to update the skills of those already in the workforce who do not have the time to return to university full time. Additionally, fast-tracked, three-year programs—with more spring and summer courses offered to students—is another mechanism by which the number of qualified graduates entering the workforce can increase.
The growing disconnect between what we are learning in school and what we need in the real world is a problem solved by the same materials we need to fuel our economy: Innovation, adaptability, and efficiency. If politicians, universities, colleges, high schools, and students can’t step up and collaborate on these issues, we may very well have an end-of-the-world scenario fit for our opinions section this week (see pp. 12–13).
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