Wednesday, April 08, 2015

More on Ken Coates on Career Ready

I tend to look askance at universities and how they operate, so I take a sympathetic interest in studies of how they fail to serve their students and society at large, particularly by fellow historians. But, as I started to say the other day, reading Ken Coates's analysis in his recent report Career Ready doesn't leave me confident that these are problems historians are solving.

The fundamental arguments of Career Ready are 1) that the trouble with the Canadian economy is a shortage of skilled workers, and 2) that the shortage is caused by over-entitled kids who with their parents have misaligned expectations for their futures.

The fundamental solution Career Ready offers is coercing more young people out of university educations and into skills training programs, with curricula and credentials defined by businesses that will then employ them.

The problem with assertion one is pretty simple. There is good reason to believe there is no skills shortage. There is a shortage of short-term informal job training – that is, on-the-job training, the kind of thing that Canadian business should be doing in house, largely outside the education system, but does not and will not do, thereby pushing job-seekers into ever more expensive and often misaligned diploma chasing. Studies on this are here (Maclean's) and here (scholarly). Ken doesn’t cite studies in the report, he just declares.

The problem with assertion two is more complicated. I share Ken’s wish for young people to have secure, productive careers in the Canadian economy, and I’m pretty sympathetic to his assertion (again, no data given) that many young people who enter university are not very well suited, get a lousy education, and too often emerge with doubtful prospects, particularly in the arts, social sciences, and humanities areas.

But are Canadian families really suffering from “misplaced expectations” when they put value on university education?
Look at the real problems of the Canadian economy -- beyond the alleged "skills shortage". A persistently high rate of un- and under-employment. Increasing job insecurity throughout the economy. The failure of wages and salaries to keep pace with living costs. The erosion of pension security. The shifting of the tax burden from the corporate sector and the wealthy to the working population. Temporary foreign workers programs that increase job insecurity and downward pressure on wages. The erosion of public programs like child-care and employment insurance that enable workers to deal with employment fluctuations. The crumbling of unions and other institutions that assist workers in defining their interests.

These real structural problems do threaten the prospects of young university graduates, but all are at least as salient among graduates of the skilled-worker programs Ken wants to turn them towards. It is not only low-skilled workers in mining, forestry, the automotive sector, and energy who have been devastated by economic turmoil and change in recent decades. Skilled workers have been equally hard hit. In Ken’s favourite careers -- digital technologies, creative content, finance, advanced manufacturing, and resource extraction -- skilled Canadian workers are also routinely faced with layoffs, wage pressure, and insecurity. Remember the skilled bank employees to be laid off because the banks were outsourced their jobs to India? Pushing more young people into Financial Admin programs in the colleges doesn’t address that threat. Nor will greater mobility, as the tens of thousands who have moved to Fort McMurray can now testify.

Skilled workers are precisely the people Ken wants the education system to produce in much larger numbers. But given the job insecurity the Canadian economy currently imposes on them –- and the lack of support Canadian public policy gives when they attempt to cope with change and insecurity -- can we really say that parents and young people are wrong to look skeptically at skills training as a panacea? Surely it is the Council of Chief Executives whose expectations are all wrong.

Do young people really suffer from “misaligned expectations” when they calculate that a university education might give them more options, more flexibility, and better long-term opportunities than a narrowly focused skills training program determined by the short-term and self-interested proposals of the business community? I doubt it. They may be making desperate gambles against challenging odds, but they are not over-entitled or lacking in entrepreneurship.  They know well that the university offers no guarantees and is not very concerned about their needs and prospects. That doesn't mean their calculations are irrational.

(Entirely coincidentally and without my foreknowledge, Active History yesterday took up another essay by Ken on a totally different subject.)
Follow @CmedMoore