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Planning your education and career in uncertain times

The rhetoric of "talent management" is everywhere. In addition to being an incredibly annoying buzzword, it points to policies for employability that simply don't acknowledge structural barriers posed by the labour market.

Recently I was at a Policy Forum hosted by Ontario’s Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development. Lots of topics were covered, but one thing I really noticed was two very contradictory perspectives on labour market participation.

Version One says that everyone should have the opportunity to be engaged in meaningful work and learning.[1]  It was the dominant tone of the policy event, expressed in the opening address of Conference Board of Canada Chief Economist Craig Alexander. If you read about labour and education at all, there was nothing too new in his presentation: Canada has an aging population. We need skilled workers and good jobs to collectively pay for all the stuff we need. Like health care, and drugs and quality childcare, and good schools.

We also have a lot of people who are under-represented in the labour market, or whose skills are under-utilized. The “usual suspects” here, all discussed by Alexander, are Indigenous people, racialized visible minorities, skilled immigrants and people with disabilities. The logic is pretty clear. Get people learned up in the right fields — especially Indigenous people — and then get them hooked up to the jobs we need filled.

Of course, it’s not this simple, but I’m not out to argue with the basic logic of matching people to jobs here. What I would like to point out is that this particular vision of work is highly inclusive. It says that a diverse workforce is a strength. You can’t have people from different cultures working together or develop accommodations for people with disabilities unless you’ve got an underlying, genuine belief that the full array of peoples’ gifts, knowledge, perspectives and experiences are both socially and economically valuable.

So, I’m pretty down with all of this; it is the vision of work that I believe in. Which is why I just about lost it upon the later presentation of Version Two of labour force participation: “Talent Management.” The speaker, who clearly loooved the concept, presented a survey of employer perspectives on the recruitment of post-secondary graduates that was littered with references to “thought leadership,” “talent pipelines” and sundry HR speak.

Mostly what made me crazy was the presenter’s enthusiasm for a rhetoric that is used to normalize and justify the high-stakes competition faced by new grads for a rapidly diminishing pool of secure career-entry level jobs. “Talent” in the contexts of “talent management” is the opposite of the kind of inclusive vision I discussed above. Instead, while professing to want generic attributes like a “willingness to learn” and “people skills”[2] — apparently four years of university is insufficient to acquire these traits? — actual job requirements can border on the absurd in the degree of specificity they require of candidates: “Sorry we only want to hire you if you at least three-and-a-half years of experience with Python and SQL while making pumpkin spice lattes and wearing a pirate patch over your left eye.”

Over and above the weird gap between the narrative around generic attributes and the specificity of actual job requirements, what’s really interesting is the big fat gap between policy goals for employability — which wax inclusiveness — and the logic of “talent management” which justifies and even celebrates exclusion.

The gap points to underlying, competing understandings of under-employment and unemployment. If the “talent managers” are right, there are simply too few of these elusively talented people to fill jobs. This is the “skills gap” model. If people like me who theorize a shortage of decent jobs as the cause of under/unemployment are correct, “talent management” is just a way of dressing up a labour market that favours employers because the supply of educated workers exceeds demand.[3]

So, job seekers either have to figure out what the hell "talent" is supposed to mean, or they are truly facing an employer's job market. Neither of these conditions bodes well for skilled workers, let alone unskilled workers to be targetted with education and training. As ever, policy looks to the salvation in education in lieu of frank understandings of real labour market conditions.[4]

References

[1] See this report to Ontario’s premier in 2016, Building the Workforce of Tomorrow: A Shared Responsibility.

[2] Actual top two “talent challenges” reported by employers in this Waterloo study of employers’ perceptions of talent.

[3] See Uppal, S., & LaRochelle-Côté, S. (2014). Overqualification among recent university graduates in Canada. Ottawa; Boggs, J. (2017, Sept. 13). Is Canada’s skills shortage real or are businesses to blame? The Conversation.

[4] This current report from Chartered Professional Accountants Canada discusses the ways in which present data collected on the Canadian labour market fails to account for multiple forms of labour market precarity: Fong, F. (2018). Navigating precarious employment in Canada: Who is really at risk?  Also see Weil’s (2014) The Fissured Workplace for a detailed account of structural changes in the organization of work.