Future Proofing Research Skills

This report was prepared by Cheryl Jensen on behalf of McMaster University.

The issue of what skills are needed for individuals to succeed in the rapidly changing world of work has received considerable attention, arguably world-wide and certainly in Canada.  The efforts to work with employers and students to demonstrate that University graduates at both the undergraduate and graduate level have the skills to succeed have been successful, especially in the fields of undergraduate Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.  The work done in the fields of Arts and Humanities, where the focus in the past, has been to prepare future professors for University research and teaching, has been more difficult to quantify and to dispel negative perceptions of job availability and relevance. In addition, Universities are under increasing pressure to make measurable achievements in scholarly research impact, research funding and scholarly reputation. This traditional mission of research-intensive universities may seem incongruent with career readiness and employment outcomes. Seeking appropriate balance of this mandate while supporting employability of graduates in an environment demanding flexibility, agility and rapid adaptation is challenging to achieve, but vital.

In conjunction with the Future Skills Centre and Research Impact Canada, McMaster University commissioned Cheryl Jensen, former President of Algonquin College of Applied Arts and Technology, to provide advice on ways it could enhance the links between university research activities and future skills for graduating students in the labour market. Below is a list of 4 recommendations that Jensen identified as opportunities and potential actions for universities within this landscape.

Recommendation 1: Develop a community advisory panel consisting of employers, students, alumni, faculty members and administrators.

A community advisory panel would focus on the changing world of work for the stakeholders and actions for meeting the needs of future skills of students. This approach has been employed successfully in the case of the Business and Higher Education Roundtable (www.bher.ca).

This recommendation is founded on perspectives developed in an RBC Report on a survey of employers, students and government entitled Humans Wanted: How Canadian Youth Can Thrive in the Age of Disruption. It suggests that employers need to re-think the way they hire, retrain and continuously re-shape their workforces, while educators need to think beyond degrees and certificates. The report suggests that major changes are needed to the education system to support the labour force of the future, because many jobs will be disrupted and Canadian business is not equipped to re-train to the extent needed. The report focuses on foundational skills within six clusters, an approach that could allow greater labour mobility.

Most important for the post-secondary education sector, the report finds:

  • Only 37% of small business owners are satisfied with the job-readiness of university graduates – these are the businesses that have the greatest challenges in providing training
  • Digital fluency will be essential to all jobs – this doesn’t mean everyone has to be a coder
  • Global competencies like cultural awareness, language and adaptability will be in demand
  • Virtually all jobs will place significant importance on judgement and decision-making while two thirds will value the ability to manage people and resources

A follow up study and report, Bridging the Gap – What Canadians told us about the Skills Gap was conducted by the RBC team about one year after Humans Wanted was released.  The RBC team, led by John Stackhouse, Senior Vice President, Office of the CEO, over the course of 10 months, visited 12 cities, held 36 events and roundtable discussions, and engaged with more than 5,000 Canadians, ranging from youth and workers to employers, educators and policymakers, each with perspectives on how Canada can prepare for a disrupted future.  The team heard the following, as given in the report:

  • Don’t lose sight of Liberal Arts
  • Place more value on extra-curriculars
  • Connect teachers with the labour market
  • Bring management skills to the tech sector
  • Increase Indigenous youth training
  • Help small businesses hire students
  • Promote digital skills in non-digital industries

A common thread throughout discussions with employers that informed the report was the need for more information sharing between students, the academic institution, leaders and professors.  Frequently bringing all voices to one table will enrich everyone’s understanding of the issues, inform all of accomplishments and best practices, work that is currently underway and bring ideas forward that would not have been considered without this understanding.

Recommendation 2: Adopt institution-wide strategies to become co-operative education/work integrated learning environments.

Having research-based universities adopt institution-wide strategies to become co-operative education/work integrated learning environments is easy to say, and challenging to envision and implement. The demand from students for experiential education is high and employers want students with more work experience, along with longer co-op terms. While industry and government have been primary locations for co-op learning, there is an opportunity to expand into the not-for-profit sector, where research partnerships are growing and student learning opportunities are strong but underdeveloped. It is recommended that universities seek deeper partnerships with specific industries and companies, adapting programs to their needs more.

There are many challenges to this recommendation, and not all programs would align well with a co-op education model, however, the challenges would be worth addressing.

Recommendation 3: Expand interdisciplinary undergraduate and graduate program offerings to better equip students with the skills that can be gained through a liberal arts education, focused on critical analysis and social impact, coupled with more substantive skills.

Examples of such programs include McMaster’s integrated business and humanities program and the University of Toronto’s initiative called the 10,000 PhDs project. The latter anticipates large increases in the number of PhD graduates and the need to prepare these graduates for employment in the private and public sectors providing the highly qualified personnel needed to drive an innovation economy.

This kind of re-focusing can be very beneficial for the Social Sciences and Humanities. It is already known that 40% of Social Sciences and Humanities undergraduates return to school within a year of graduating, 15% of them enrolling in community college. When institutions have expanded their interdisciplinary undergraduate and graduate programs they have been seen a large change in enrolment which can be attributed to making their programs compelling.

Recommendation 4: Establish regional consortia of post-secondary education (PSE) institutions, business, NGO and government to plan for labour market needs and strategies to produce the workforce necessary to meet those needs

In Ottawa, an initiative called ‘Education City’ was started in 2018 to “develop more integrated stackable academic programs and shared research shops that will help find solutions to challenges faced by businesses, non-profits and governments” (Ottawa Business Journal, February 25, 2019). While there are already many examples of joint university-college programs, few of these are designed with the thorough and systematic input of these regional employment stakeholders.

Ottawa’s Education City involves a partnership between four public postsecondary institutions – University of Ottawa, Carleton, Algonquin and La Cité – in which the institutions have made a serious commitment to student-centred postsecondary educational options across institutions.  The vision is to develop a new type of postsecondary education that is flexible, capitalizes on the advantages of both college and university education models, and linked to workplace training and lifelong learning and development. All four presidents made a commitment to Education City in their strategic mandate agreements with the Government of Ontario and funding was obtained from the provincial government to develop the concept and success measures.

Although there are challenges to implementing such a recommendation and concerns about letting an institution own one segment of such an initiative in today’s hyper competitive postsecondary environment, the benefits could outweigh the risks. The collective benefit could be greater impact of the PSE sector in the communities it serves as the needs of the changing workforce and economy.

This work was funded by The Conference Board of Canada through the Government of Canada’s Future Skills Centre

Any omissions in fact or interpretation remain the sole responsibility of the authors. The findings do not necessarily reflect the views of Research Impact Canada, its funder, or its partners.