A spate of analyses and commentaries have appeared recently, proclaiming the deleterious effects of actual and looming skills shortages on the Canadian economy. Yet in reality, the situation – and its solutions – is far more complex than such simple statistics would imply and a closer look at Canada’s “skilled labour shortage” reveals more than a few surprises. Labour shortages, in fact, do not just occur in the sciences, as is commonly presumed. They are just as prevalent – if not more so – in many social sciences and humanities fields.
First, consider how the term “skills shortage”, meaning essentially fewer people available to fill critical shortages, is typically characterized. A report prepared by the CIBC World Markets indicates, for example, that in 2012, no less than 30 percent of Canadian businesses indicated that they faced a skilled labour shortage, double the number posted in 2010. Another survey of 100 senior executives published late last year by Workopolis similarly indicated that 32 percent believed that the shortage of skilled workers was the number one problem facing Canadian business in general.
Many Canadians would expect the gaps to be those professionals with technology training such as software programmers and health care professionals as well as those with skills in the trades, such as electricians and welders. The corollary posits that Canada has far less need for those with “softer” and less marketable educational credentials in English, fine arts, history or psychology.
The CIBC’s analysis of the top occupations showing signs of skills shortages, however, tells quite another story. A casual review of the 25 jobs listed shows that contrary to the prevailing wisdom, over one-third require postsecondary training in the social sciences and humanities: managers, auditors, accountants, probation officers, and clergy. Another group, roughly equivalent in number, are linked to health care services: physicians, dentists, therapy professionals, and medical technologists – the bulk of whom are either self-employed or work in the broader public sector. Only five of the 25 jobs could be classified as “skilled trades”, among them miners, gas drillers, and engineers.
At the other end of the scale, of the 20 occupations listed by CIBC as showing signs of labour surplus, those positions reliant on training in the social sciences and humanities number just three (sales and service supervisors, manufacturing managers, and teachers). The vast majority are in the clerical and retail services area. With respect to both skills surpluses and deficits, consequently, the portrait of un- and under-employed anthropology, sociology, or philosophy graduates in Canada needs to be seriously rethought.
There are equally salient quantitative aspects to the skills gap conundrum. For example, surveys of company representatives are useful in identifying employer perceptions of the shortages that exist, but they provide little detail about the dimensions of the problem. One-third of business respondents may report that skills shortages are adversely affecting their operations, but it is difficult to know how this translates to actual numbers, or what precise effect this has.
Do employer perceptions of the skills gap lead to the kinds of dire admonitions made by analysts about a need to overhaul our postsecondary system to focus on training in the “hard” disciplines? This isn’t clear. A 2009 study of small and medium-size enterprises conducted by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business analyzing the strategies these companies undertake to manage labour shortages is enlightening. It found that the majority of companies responding, at about 55 percent, focussed on mitigating skills deficits through on-the-job training. Just a third said their most critical shortages related to positions requiring a postsecondary credential or apprenticeship training – what one would normally think of in terms of “skilled labour.”
In a similar vein, the largest number of senior executives surveyed by the Workopolis study (46 percent) indicated that “increased training or education” was one of the ways that their companies were working to mitigate talent shortages internally. Only 19 percent suggested that foreign recruitment represented a viable solution, suggesting that the skilled labour required is more often than not available domestically under the right conditions.
All this suggests that solutions to critical labour shortages must be linked to a solid and enlightened understanding of the overall training supply and demand situation in Canada. There is no question that economic success will continue to depend upon a ready supply of graduates with training in the sciences, life sciences, mathematics and engineering. What we can’t lose sight of, however, are the critical skills gaps that must be met through training in the social sciences and humanities.
This may be even more critical today than in the past, given the exigencies of a highly competitive global economy where constant idea-driven innovation propels national success. At the end of the day, these are precisely the skills that are needed to undertake the highly sophisticated labour market research which can provide solid policy advice to governments and business enterprise itself in the critical years ahead.
Dr. Hewitt is executive vice-president with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.