What do employers want from Canadian higher education?

June 18, 2014
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Paul Davidson, president, Universities Canada

This op-ed was published in The Globe and Mail on June 18, 2014.

By Paul Davidson, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada

Paul Soubry, president and CEO of New Flyer, North America’s largest bus manufacturer and parts-supply company

When University of Manitoba business student Dale Camuyong was nominated for—and won—an award as his school’s best co-op student of 2013, what were the qualities that so impressed his employer? Given that this employer was a bus manufacturing company, you might think that a sharply focused set of technical skills was critical. In fact, however, what New Flyer Industries cited about Camuyong’s performance was a strikingly diverse set of skills and qualities: not just human resources knowledge but leadership, initiative, teamwork, dedication, professionalism and a sense of humour.

This example shows something important about the relationship between employers and Canadian institutions of higher education. What employers are looking for is not just a high level of specialized skills, but a larger ensemble of social qualities—sometimes called ‘soft skills’—needed to do the jobs in today’s labour market.

Just what those soft skills those are, and how much Canada’s universities, colleges and trade schools can and should teach them, is one of the most hotly debated questions in our nation’s public and economic policy. Most stakeholders in industry and higher education agree that a core part of these institutions’ mission—even if not the entirety of that mission—consists in producing graduates suited to the needs of today’s labour market. And all parties agree that getting a good match between employers’ needs and workers’ fit with those needs has huge economic implications.

More data on labour market needs would better inform the discussion. But the consistent message from employers is that they’re looking for people who fit today’s collaborative workplaces, which call for interaction, team skills and leadership. As Canadian companies become increasingly global in their activities, so does their need for workers capable of doing business across cultural and national boundaries. That kind of ‘fit’ with workplace needs is so valuable that most employers prefer to hire for fit and then train for specialized skills rather than the other way around.

Canadian universities, colleges and trade schools know they’re being called on by employers to teach more about skills in collaboration, cultural awareness and team dynamics. Universities already do this well, and are preparing to do even more in years ahead. All institutions also know that they owe it to their students to provide an education that fosters adaptability in face of changing labour markets and the trend toward more career changes during their working lives. As economist Todd Hirsh, Chief Economist with ATB Financial, noted in this newspaper last month, “What postsecondary education needs to do—be it through a liberal arts degree or a polytechnic program—is prepare the students not for a job, but for a lifetime of morphing careers.”

In many respects, universities are already getting a lot of this right. According to a survey by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, most large employers in Canada are either satisfied or extremely satisfied with the quality of education given to the university students who go on to join their workforce. With half of all undergraduates already taking part in co-ops and internships, that’s helping create the workplace ‘fit’ that employers are looking for.

Yet much remains to be done in producing higher education graduates suited to today’s labour market needs. A good starting point would be the recognition that many kinds of education are in demand, spanning the entire gamut from advanced university degrees to college and trades training. It’s not a matter of promoting one kind of education as opposed to the others; just because Canada may need more plumbers or welders doesn’t mean it needs fewer history graduates or urban planners.

For their part, policy makers could help by embracing a broad rather than narrow definition of the skills that higher education should convey: not just technical know-how but team work, multi-dimensional thinking and cross-cultural competencies. They should also keep in mind the need to produce workers with the adaptability to succeed in a future of increasing career and labour market changes. They should work with partners in business and postsecondary education to gather and analyze better labour market data, in order to have reliable information on which to base decisions about directions for postsecondary education in Canada. Finally, they should be prepared to invest in internships and global experience for Canadian students in order foster the kinds of soft skills employers are looking for.

We can’t know everything about the labour market needs of the future, but we do know that flexibility, variety and fit will be essential. If industry, higher education institutions and policy-makers work more closely together to realize those goals, we’ll be doing right by students, workers, employers and Canada’s economic prosperity.

Video by Paul Soubry on job skills, income and higher education.

A short clip of Paul Soubry’s address at the April 2014 membership meeting of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.

[readmore label=”Transcript”]

Text on screen: [Address by New Flyer president and CEO Paul Soubry, AUCC membership meeting, Winnipeg, April 8-9, 2014 | Allocution de Paul Soubry, p.-d.g. de New Flyer, Réunion des membres de l’AUCC, Winnipeg, du 8 au 9 avril 2014]

Paul Soubry, New Flyer president and CEO:
So the next question, what combination of skills and experience does the next generation of leaders need to be successful? Now again, it’s 30 years since I went to school, but for me, the easiest courses were human resources, organizational behaviour and so forth. And most of the time, I thought I was wasting my time. I wanted to be an accountant after several unsuccessful attempts at first-year financial accounting, the prof suggested I might to into sales marketing or human resources.

But honestly, those courses to me were philosophical. They were theoretical, they were conceptual, there was no right or wrong, basically soft stuff. But honestly, now that I’m 30 years later, now that I run a business, in my case, 3,200 people in multiple facilities, previously 4,500 people all over the globe, honestly, the stuff that’s really important all day long is organizational behaviour, human resources and people and leadership stuff.

And so I realized you can hire smart people and you can realize you can buy computers and other stuff to design or calculate and so forth. The most difficult thing to do is to teach people how to be a leader. And we spend a lot of time in our business differentiating between management and leadership, and they are two very, very different things.

I’m a bit of a junkie for quotes and so forth, and I love this one from, from Michael Porter at Harvard, and so when you think, when he thinks about and talks about the global environment, he says, and it’s so true in my business cause all I do is assemble a bunch of parts, like 30,000 parts, and at the end of the day, you’ve got a bus. But so does my competitor. There’s not much really different. He says that people are the only real source of true competitive advantage.

And you know, when you look back at, at where people work and the way we respond and how we interact with our customers, at the end of the day, I’m building a bus, no different than any of my competitors. It really is about the people. And so, I really think that’s an important thing that universities should think about and that the difference between your school and somebody else’s school really has to do with the quality of the people that are teaching, managing, leading and, and educating our youngsters.

Text on screen: [Information/Renseignements www.aucc.ca ; bilingual logo of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada]


About Universities Canada
Universities Canada is the voice of Canada’s universities at home and abroad, advancing higher education, research and innovation for the benefit of all Canadians.

Media contact:

Lisa Wallace
Assistant Director, Communications
Universities Canada
[email protected]

Tagged:  Co-ops and internships

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