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The Skills Agenda

How universities and employers can both address Canada’s human skills shortages

The economy needs more human skills. There is opportunity for both universities and employers to take steps to address this.


In Lost Opportunities: Measuring the Unrealized Value of Skill Vacancies in Canada (March 2022), the Conference Board of Canada writes, “We estimate that the unrealized value of skill vacancies in the Canadian economy was $25 billion in 2020, which is equivalent to 1.3 per cent of GDP.”

Strikingly, of the 35 skill vacancy areas they examine, almost all the top 20 are so-called “soft skills” or “human skills.” According to the Conference Board of Canada, “The six skills for which vacancies incur the highest costs are active listening, critical thinking, reading comprehension, speaking, monitoring, and coordination. …. The cost of vacancies related to these skills equalled $1 billion or more for each of them.” Neither mathematics nor science breaks into the top 20 skill vacancy areas, sitting at 21 and 29 out of 35 respectively, and “task and technically oriented skills… are typically at the bottom of the list in terms of unrealized value” (italics in original).

Image: Conference Board of Canada, 2022. Lost Opportunities: Measuring the Unrealized Value of Skill Vacancies in Canada

This analysis suggests that Canada is doing a good job in meeting its needs regarding trades and STEM skills training, which is great news. But it also suggests that further work needs to be done with human skills training, which is less great news.

Human skills training is found, to greater and lesser degrees, in all disciplines, and it is a particular focus of the social sciences and humanities. Often the biggest challenge is helping students to identify the skills they have acquired in their courses, especially to employers. In this month’s column, I explore how both universities and employers can work together to address Canada’s human skills gap.

How universities can help address the human skills gap

In reviewing the skill vacancies list, social science and humanities programs clearly have a large potential role to play. Critical thinking, writing, speaking, reading comprehension, social perceptiveness are all skill areas that social science and humanities programs traditionally claim to develop. For example, as seen in my last Skills Agenda column, the UBC political science “rich transcript” shows how the program’s classes train students in critical thinking, writing, reading comprehension, speaking and social perceptiveness.

Unfortunately, few social science and humanities programs make such explicit connections between their learning outcomes and career skill development. For many students (and, importantly, their parents), the false trope of “liberal arts student as food server” persists.

As the Strada Institute for the Future of Work writes, “Most audiences probably don’t know, for instance, that in recent years, the growth of liberal arts graduates entering the tech workforce has actually outstripped growth in computer science and engineering graduates doing so.” Universities can play a role in helping students understand the connections between social science and humanities degree programs and career opportunities. (For an example of how this might be done, see my column on York University’s Envision YU initiative).

There are also opportunities for universities to identify ways to bring more human skills training to other programs. In addition to requiring electives in the social sciences and humanities across all programs, universities might establish interdisciplinary certificate programs, such as the University of Saskatchewan’s Global Studies Certificate, that develop human skills while connecting to a variety of disciplinary areas. University learning centres can also work with programs and faculty members to adopt pedagogies that build specific human skills, such as critical thinking or problem solving.

On top of these options, there are exciting opportunities to develop innovative interdisciplinary degree programs that combine social science and humanities disciplines with STEM disciplines. The current buzz acronym on this front is STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics), but the extent to which this has truly made its way into higher education programming is unclear.

Regardless of the program focus, it is important that programs and classes be explicit in human skills training. As I have discussed before, explicit instruction involves adding the skill to the course/program learning outcomes, building it into the course/program evaluation components, and using instructional time to allow students to actively practice the skill. Explicit instruction can help students see the connection between their skills and the labour market.

How employers can help address the human skills gap

So universities can do a lot to help students develop and articulate their human skills. But a persistent challenge for social science and humanities students is that employers fail to appreciate their value. Despite being trained in exactly the skill areas employers need, employers are not clearly or actively seeking out these graduates. To again quote the Strada Institute for the Future of Work, “Employers do a poor job of signalling their needs. They tend to overload their job postings with a litany of hard, technical skills and then sprinkle in some general human skills of communicating well, providing or receiving feedback, or managing other people well. It’s not enough for employers to say they’re looking for great communicators, critical thinkers, or collaborators.”

The Conference Board report shows clearly that employers’ greatest need is indeed human skills. So moving forward, employers might want to consider how to hire based on human skills first, with job-specific technical skills being secondary. This could involve employer-based or microcredential training in a focused area to supplement a more robust social science and humanities degree program.

Employers might also want to improve their connections to universities to better understand the skills students develop in different programs, and to clearly articulate their needs as employers.

Students want, among other things, to develop skills that they can use in their future careers. Universities want, among other things, for their students to enjoy career success that builds upon their university training. And employers want, among other things, to recruit talented employees to help them succeed. Universities and employers communicating about their shared interests stands to benefit all parties.

Continuing the #SkillsAgenda conversation

What are your own thoughts about how universities can help address human skills gaps in Canada? Please let me know by commenting below.

I look forward to hearing from you. Until next time, stay well, my colleagues.

Loleen Berdahl
Loleen Berdahl is an award-winning university instructor, the executive director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (Universities of Saskatchewan and Regina), and professor and former head of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Since 2016, Dr. Berdahl has spoken about student skills training and professional development at conferences and university campuses across Canada. Her research on these topics is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Grant program. Her next book, For the Public Good: Reimagining Arts Graduate Programs in Canadian Universities, is coauthored with Jonathan Malloy and Lisa Young and will be released by the University of Alberta Press in March 2024.
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