The recent Maclean’s article entitled “The Future of Jobs in Canada – Why Canada doesn’t work“ by Chris Sorensen helpfully described the future of employment in Canada, but in doing so it reminded me of a well-known issue that all developed societies face: that education and the workforce do not correlate as much as they should.
As Sorensen noted, there is a “skills mismatch” between workers and jobs, and as millions of baby boomers retire in the next few decades, there will be and already is a “massive shortage” of skilled workers to take their place. Sorensen remarks, “The country is in dire need of engineers, health workers and skilled trades people. Yet tens of thousands of students continue to pursue degrees in the arts and humanities.”
The article names other factors that contribute to and help mend the current shortage of skilled labour in the workforce, but at its core, the “skills mismatch” is an issue of education meeting the demands of the economy.
A possible solution to the skills mismatch? Reform the education system in order to better serve the needs of a changing economy. Nobina Robinson, the CEO of Polytechnics Canada, states in the article that “The knowledge economy is always saying we need more M.B.A.s and Ph.D.s. But to come up with big discoveries and innovative breakthroughs, you actually need people who can make, design and build things, too.”
Obviously, Robinson is right to a certain degree. There is only so much need – and room – for M.B.A.’s, Ph.D.’s, and M.D.’s, and yet these are the careers that we revere and direct our youth to. I know this all to well, as I too was once a medical school hopeful before I found out that others who were smarter and more motivated than myself were also medical school hopefuls. Something had to give, and in this case it was me. In hindsight, my decision not to pursue medical school was indeed the right decision, but I, like many university students, did not know that at the time.
This is, I am sure, part of the reason why Sorensen noted that 20 per cent of college applicants looking for a specialized career in the trades already have a university degree. That is an astonishing number, and one that should force us to re-evaluate the efficacy of our university programs. But, does that number mean, as it is so often implied when it is used, that a university degree is rendered useless or a waste of time and money if a student does not get a job in their area of undergraduate study?
In some cases it may be a waste of time, but in other cases — I would argue in most cases — it is not a waste of time. So my fear, and the reason I write this article, is that when we talk about a “skills mismatch” in the workforce or wasted university degrees, we are in danger of focusing our education so much on the needs of the present that we will forget the lessons of the past.
The problem with serving the needs of the present or the needs of innovation, as it is often put, is that innovation is fundamentally destabilizing. Innovation challenges the practices and traditions of the past in order to push development into the future. This doesn’t mean that innovation is bad – often our old practices do need tweaking – it just means that innovation will always be on its own, ahead of the pack, waiting for the others – like education, or policy, or religion – to catch up. And as such, the innovators in the workforce will lament that education is not meeting the needs of an innovating economy and a changing society.
And in many ways the innovators, like Nobina Robinson, are right: if you are not willing to change you will be left behind. This is why the article notes that the “skills mismatch” between education and the workforce “pose(s) the single biggest long-term threat to Canadian economic growth, exacerbating Canada’s already lagging productivity and innovation.”
But if we wish to meet the needs of an innovating economy, an important question to ask is what should we change and what should we keep the same? We obviously don’t or can’t change everything at once, which is why innovations don’t often feel destabilizing. We change, but only enough to ensure that we do not lose our feet from under us.
This is where education, and specifically education on the past, is crucial. In order to know what we must change and what we must keep the same we must use history, with all it’s traditions and practices, as an essential guide. To quote the cultural critic Neil Postman from his book Technopoly, “History is not merely one subject among many that may be taught; every subject has a history, including biology, physics, mathematics, literature, music, and art. I would propose that every teacher must be a history teacher.” History reminds us that innovations have a past and a future and to only focus on the present is to miss out on the important lessons of the past.
I am not saying that we should not encourage our youth to pursue careers in the trades, because we should. And I am not saying that we should not change our education system to meet the practical needs of the present economy, because we should. What I am saying is that if such changes are done in pursuit of a “comfortable middle-class lifestyle” as the article seems to imply, then we need to think carefully about the changes we push for in the education of our youth.
Again, here is Postman on the matter of education: “The most important contribution schools can make to the education of our youth is to give them a sense of coherence in their studies, a sense of purpose, meaning, and interconnectedness in what they learn.” So before we talk about transforming our education system in order to serve the insatiable needs of innovation, we must be sure that we are providing a proper sense of purpose, meaning, and interconnectedness so that the student, once in the workforce and settled nicely into a comfortable middle-class lifestyle, doesn’t end up asking in a moment of existential crisis, what is my place or purpose in this workforce?
What is needed then is a change in our education, but not a wholesale change toward innovation. We need a change that marries innovation with tradition so that students can go into the trades without feeling like they are giving up history, religion, the arts, literature, and music. Because in the end, it appears that the dichotomy we have set-up in our education system between the arts and innovation — or the dichotomy between university and college — may be exactly why Maclean’s can claim that “Canada doesn’t work.”
Photo courtesy of Canning Town Caravanserai