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Employers see shortfalls in skills

Monday November 10, 2014 Written by 
Although Canada has a good track record in producing highly educated graduates, deficits in key skills threaten the country's economic performance.

According to the latest report from the Conference Board of Canada, roughly 53 per cent of Canadian adults hold a university or college credential, and another 12 per cent hold trade certificates. Moreover, Canadian adults perform at or above the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average in literacy and problem-solving in technology-rich environments. But given that proportionally more Canadians have a higher education than people in other countries, our literacy and problem-solving scores should be higher.

“Canada is doing quite well in producing people with university, college, and trade credentials. But actual skills attainment in a number of key areas, like critical thinking, numeracy, innovation and employability skills, is underwhelming,” said Daniel Munro, co-author of the report. “We need to do a better job of educating and training people to acquire the right skills to succeed professionally and contribute socially.”

Weak adult numeracy

Canada’s performance is weak in adult numeracy, where we fall below the OECD average, and in the number of graduates from the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines. The proportion of students graduating with degrees in engineering, physical and life sciences, mathematics, and computer and information sciences has stagnated over the past twenty years, relative to the proportion of students graduating with degrees in other fields.

The report also found that Canada is producing too few people with advanced degrees, particularly PhDs, and especially in key STEM fields.

Given the increased importance of science, technology and advanced research skills to innovation, commercialization and productivity, these trends could undermine economic and social well-being.

Employers observing gaps

Employers are also concerned about the essential, innovation, and employability skills of graduates. A recent Conference Board of Canada survey found that over 70 per cent of employers observed gaps in job candidates’ and recent hires’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Between one-third and one-half of employers also said that they are seeing deficits in literacy, communication (e.g, writing and speaking), and teamwork skills among recent graduates and job candidates.

The surveyed employers note that these skills gaps are leading to lower quality products and services, weaker productivity, and less innovation. The latter is especially troubling given Canada’s persistently poor innovation performance.

Workplace training limited

At the same time, opportunities for adult learning and education to maintain and enhance skills, including workplace training, are limited, declining and of questionable impact.

In 2009, only 31 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 25 and 64 participated in some form of non-formal job related education. This is slightly higher than the OECD average of 28 per cent, but well behind leading European countries such as Sweden (61 per cent), Norway (47 per cent) and Finland (44 per cent), as well as the United States (33 per cent).

Canadians received just 49 hours of instruction, lower than the OECD average of 59 hours and less than half the 105 hours provided to adults in Denmark, the leading performer. Canadian employer spending on training and development decreased by nearly 40 per cent from 1993 to 2010.

Increased participation in apprenticeships

The apprenticeship and skilled trades sector is also critical. Participation in the apprenticeship system has increased markedly over the past 20 years and more apprentices are completing their training, achieving certification, and reaping the benefits. Yet, completion rates remain a challenge and it is not clear that Canada’s apprenticeship systems have achieved the right scope of occupational coverage.

The report concludes that further attention to actual skills attainment is needed in order for the post-secondary education sector to sustain and enhance its performance as a driver of economic growth and societal well-being.

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