Around this time of year, as university graduation ceremonies are starting to happen, there are usually more than a few news stories about the knowledge, skills and abilities that employers are looking for in university graduates. There’s also stories claiming that Canada has a “skills gap”: that new university graduates allegedly lack the skills that employers are seeking.
These stories tend to be very one-sided discussions, based on an implicit assumption that a university’s job is to produce what employers want. Obviously, no university student wants to spend several years and many thousands of dollars to end up being unemployable. But when all Canadian universities are struggling with decreasing government funding and increasing operating expenses, I sense an increasing frustration from universities that they are expected to respond only to whatever employers want. And, in my view, this frustration also results from a failure by governments and other stakeholders to acknowledge other purposes for university education – like producing well-rounded individuals that can become active and informed members of society.
There are great employers who understand what universities do, and why they do what they do. And there are not-so-great employers who don’t understand why universities won’t produce “better” graduates. If universities were to respond to those narrow-minded employers, what would they say? Here’s what I think it might sound like.
- Universities are not just employers’ training facilities. The amount of money that Canadian employers invest in training and development for their employees has steadily declined over the past 20 years. It’s unreasonable for employers to expect universities to provide what employers themselves aren’t willing to pay for – or for employers to expect universities to favour employers’ interests over the interests or needs of other constituencies, such as communities and regions, that universities serve.
- Universities can only do so much during a student’s program of study. In most undergraduate degree programs, students take 120 credit hours, which is usually 40 three-credit courses. Devoting more program time to one skill inevitably means that less time will be devoted to some other skill. And different employers need different sets of skills. There’s simply no way to design a degree program that develops every skill to the same level of expertise that every employer might want.
- Employers should not contribute to “credential creep” – requiring university degrees for jobs that don’t need them. Employers should be able to identify what skills or abilities are truly required for a worker to be able to perform a job successfully, and structure their hiring practices to attract potential employees with those skills and abilities. Employers requiring a university credential that has little or no relationship to the job tasks is hugely wasteful for employers and for universities.
- Employers should understand that universities make decisions slowly for a reason. Most academic decision-making processes involve multiple consultations and approvals. The length of time this can take can be very frustrating for employers who want new programs or courses around new workplace skills – and to be honest these lengthy processes are often very frustrating to people inside universities too. But the processes are in place to encourage well-reasoned and fair decisions that use the university’s resources appropriately. The fact that these processes are slow does not prove that universities are unresponsive or uncaring about labour market trends.
- Universities are employers too, and that may constrain what they can do. For example, courses may not be always be offered at times that are convenient for employers wanting to send employees. But course instructors can usually only teach a certain number of hours each week, and there may be restrictions on how those hours can be scheduled (e.g. it might be impossible to schedule an instructor to teach an evening class and then to teach a class early the next morning). Universities have to treat their own employees respectfully and equitably, and sometimes that means universities aren’t able to work on the timelines that employers would like them to.
- Employers should understand that requirements for programs and courses are there to help students, not hinder them. Some employers look at university requirements such as admission standards and course pre-requisites as unnecessary barriers to potential students or trainees. But for the most part, those requirements are based on the qualities or expertise that increase students’ chances of success in the course or the program. It doesn’t help a student to accept them into a program or course they are unprepared for.
(And, ironically, the university courses that some employers denounce as “filler” – such as literature and social sciences – are often the courses that most strongly develop skills like writing and critical thinking – skills which employers say they want graduates to have. But that’s a subject for another discussion…..)