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This recent report op-ed from the Ontario Higher Education Quality Council throws shade on schools for not training grads sufficiently. Where are the employers in this discussion? That's a good question.

employedinfieldI read this recent report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario with quickly mounting frustration. It’s premised on a key but unstated assumption that’s been driving me buggy for as long as I’ve been studying higher education and education-to-work transitions: The assumption is that Canada’s employers have no role to play in getting new grads to work.

In essence, the report’s author, Alan Harrison, is making the case that universities need to do more to communicate students’ skills to employers. Certainly, there’s room to consider this proposition. It’s silly to argue that post-secondary education can carry along and ignore grads’ needs for credentials that will help them to get jobs. GPAs and letter grade are useless for anything but getting in to grad school, so finding a different “language” or system to communicate what grads know and can do makes sense. It’s also fair game to pick on some of the more self-serving machinations of universities. They are not without their foibles.

Grad employability is a matter of evolving relationships between post-secondary education and work that requires dialogue and, I daresay “innovation”[1] to arrive upon some different ways of thinking about educational outcomes.[2] Harrison is rather less nuanced in his appraisal: If there are changes to be made, they are all on post-secondary schools, all the time. The author finger-wags at universities for failing to perform their “job,” of managing students’ transitions to the labour market:

Universities should accept that it is their responsibility to prepare their students for the workplace…. Having helped the student to develop the skills, the universities also need to ensure that there is good evidence to support the claim that this skill development has occurred.[3]

So, what’s the problem here? First, you may not even see a problem, which is itself a problem. Harrison is assuming – and you are probably buying it unless you give it some additional thought – a truth (buttered all over with some pretty high-handed moralizing) that universities are in fact responsible for grads’ labour market prospects. Is this true? Is it in fact the case? No. As you’ll see, it’s one way of framing responsibility for job matching in the labour market, but it certainly isn’t the only way.

To work through this, we first need to recognize the enormous costs associated with matching workers to jobs. We often don’t think of these costs as something that we, as a society, have any choices about, because most of costs take the form of individual transactions in the labour market. Think of advertising or looking for jobs as something like having to go on nine blind dinner dates before you get a winner in number ten. Neither employers nor workers want to kiss frogs, but this happens a lot, and every failed “date” costs dinner, an evening of time, and a new round of agonizing over your online profile.

The costs of matching workers to jobs also take the form of education and training. So, you need to add up every incidence of training or education and ask whether each of those are working out. Are acquired “skills” used in the labour market or not? If not, at least in the contexts of paid employment, these skills are wasted. For workers this looks like a student loan debt serviced by whatever they’re making as a barista or “customer care specialist.” From the employer’s side, if they invest in training and lose their workers, they have lost their investment to another firm. This describes the “poaching” problem that makes firms reluctant to retain apprentices, for example.[4]

So, let’s summarize, noting that we can add up all those individual transactions and investments by made by all people and firms trying to find the magical dinner date: a good “match.” We’ll call this aggregate a “cost,” and recognize that this cost must be borne, by some people, somewhere, to make labour markets work.

Who, then, should bear the costs of matching labour market supply to labour market demand? According to Harrison the “cost” is to be borne by students, parents, and the tax payers who fund Canada’s public universities. Who’s not showing up carry water here? Who’s not footing the bills for the dinner dates? You guessed it: Employers.

To follow Harrison’s line of reasoning, the employer just lies around in his sweatpants, and waits for Mr. or Ms. Right to show up. He doesn’t pay for dinner. He doesn’t put on his best shoes. He doesn’t even get off the damn couch. Hopeful dinner dates, whether they get lucky or not, bring dinner to him, and pay their own cab fare both ways too.

If this scenario sounds pretty unfair, that’s because it is. But we accept, without question, a parallel situation in the labour market. Employers benefit from good workers with strong skills and do so with zero-down, no interest, and no obligation. Without protections for workers, and alongside the complacency of governments and we who elect them, employers can ask for the moon, and get it. For free. In fact, the feds have announced that they going to pay employers to take on interns.[5] In the meantime, students rack up debt, and in some cases face additional years after graduation begging for any work, paid or unpaid, that will give them the “experience” they need to get so much as a smell test for any kind of secure full-time job.

I must of course qualify that there are good employers out there, and good initiatives seeking to resolve the genuinely challenging problems of getting labour markets, education and training to align. For many reasons, it is very difficult to efficiently match workers’ skills with employers’ needs. When you throw rapidly changing education and skills requirements into the mix, the whole thing is a bit of a disaster.

Strong partnerships between governments, employers and workers’ organizations are essential, not only to achieve a balance of power between workers and employers in the labour market, but to coordinate toward mutually beneficial social and economic goals.[6]. Harrison’s threats, combative tone, and narrow focus on the education sector alone pits public interests against the market, does nothing to advance the partnerships we need for a better and fairer world of work.

Footnotes and References

[1] Hackneyed, hackneyed, hackneyed word, but alas appropriate here.

[2] Skills, outcomes and graduate attributes, are words/concepts that have been proposed as meaningful alternatives to expressing what grads have learned using letter grades. See e.g. Hager, P., & Holland, S. (2006). Graduate attributes, learning and employability. Dordrecht: Springer.

[3] Author Harrison backs his moralizing with something akin to – what? A threat? – that third party private providers will just have to step in and do the virtuous work of helping student the public sector universities are so gosh darn incompetent. The threat is that “if universities do not begin to expend this effort, the private sector could very well enable students to make matches with employers in ways that render an undergraduate degree much less valuable than it is today.” In other words, “step up or the private sector’s going to eat your lunch.” I’ll point out that bashing the public sector in order to warrant the replacement of publicly provided services by private, profit-seeking corporations has worked very successfully over the last three decades to dismantle social safety nets and strengthen corporate power relative to government. Which has worked out great, right?

[4] Meredith, J. (2011). Apprenticeship in Canada: where’s the crisis? Journal of Vocational Education & Training, 63(3), 323–344. http://doi.org/10.1080/13636820.2011.570453

[5] A recent proposal by the Canadian government’s Advisory Council for Economic Growth proposal reiterates Canada’s poor track record for employer investment in worker training. Citing the Conference Board of Canada, 2015, the report states: “Annual expenditures by Canadian employers on learning and development have declined by over 40 percent in the past twenty years, from $1249 per employee in the early 1990s to $800 in 2015” (p. 6). Here's another brief critique of employers' investment in training in Canada.

[6] Wheelahan, L., & Moodie, G. (2016). Global trends in TVET: A framework for social justice. Brussels: Education International. http://download.ei-ie.org/Docs/WebDepot/GlobalTrendsinTVET.pdf