The Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE) recently released a report by Professor Ken Coates titled “Career ready: Towards a national strategy for the mobilization of Canadian potential” as part of the CCCE’s “Taking Action for Canada: Jobs and Skills for the 21st Century” initiative. While the CCCE has not explicitly provided an endorsement of this report, the CCCE did commission the report and there is a strong degree of credibility by association.
The report touches on many themes and trends related to youth education and employment, while making recommendations on how to enhance the current quality of young people entering the workforce. In doing so, Professor Coates makes broad generalizations about youth today, classifying them as the “entitlement generation”.
Interestingly enough, Professor Coates offers no evidence, citations, or sources to support the arguments presented. A basic tenet for any academic report, especially by a well-regarded Professor of public policy, is that evidence is provided to support argumentation. It can only be assumed that the Professor’s students are required to meet this basic standard.
In that regard, I concede that it is difficult to refute arguments that are not substantiated in any way. Nonetheless, I will attempt to provide both the CCCE and the Professor with facts that address some of the concerns and recommendations that have been identified in the report.
To begin with, the suggestion that the number of university students should be cut by one quarter to one third is certainly radical, if not blatantly shortsighted. This recommendation is supposedly warranted by the suggestion that we produce “too many” university graduates, and many who are admitted to university lack the intellectual ability to complete their programs and therefore would be better served by the trades or applied skilled programs.
While Canada does indeed rank second amongst OECD countries for number of post-secondary graduates, this figure includes the highly successful college and CEGEP systems. Canadians are already choosing applied programs in greater numbers than most countries. On university attendance specifically, Canada is 7th out of 16 peer countries, according to the Conference Board of Canada. Cutting that number by a third would put us at or near the very bottom. Certainly, in an ever-competitive global marketplace this is not the direction we should be heading in.
Further, the suggestion that those with less academic ability should choose college is woefully blind to the quality and diversity of education provided by colleges and polytechnics. Perpetuating the myth that colleges are meant for less capable students devalues the schools and the students who attend them.
Lastly, this suggestion ignores the fact that students who leave university overwhelmingly cite financial issues as a primary reason, not ability, according to surveys by groups such as HESA. If completion rates are a problem, the solution is financial aid.
The Professor is correct in calling for more and better labour market data so students can make informed decisions, a suggestion students have been making for years now. Like in business, the consumers are best positioned to make decisions for themselves. The Professor may be surprised to know that students want to meet the demand for skills, which is just as likely to relate to “soft skills”, like professionalism, teamwork and critical thinking, as much as “hard skills” like information technology, as shown in TD’s report on jobs in Canada from 2013.
The reality is, the choices made by students are already one of the main innovating forces in learning. For years now, increasing numbers of students have been combining college and university education, mixing theoretical degrees and applied diplomas. Today, this trend is even more pronounced – according to Colleges Ontario, nearly 43% of 25-34 year olds with post secondary education combine trades, college and university education in some way or another. This trend is only growing; college applicants with a university degree have steadily risen from 8% in 2004, to 13% in 2014.
The Professor also claims that there is a pervasive lack of entrepreneurship amongst young people today. While this assertion is consistent with the “entitlement generation” theme, it is factually untrue. Statistics Canada self-employment figures reveal that this is the most entrepreneurial generation of young people since data was first collected in 1976. There are more young people who are self-employed and working on their own businesses than ever before. This is because business, like education, is not binary, but rather constantly changing. Companies and entrepreneurs need to maximize and leverage the combination of applied skills, critical thinking, creativity and interpersonal skills in order to excel.
To be clear, the post-secondary education landscape is not entirely without barriers. Youth are faced with policies that take away financial aid if they work during the study term. Tangentially, the cost of education has risen, along with cost of living, yet the financial aid system has remained stagnant for a decade. As mentioned by the Professor, there are also issues regarding credit transfers, which limits students’ ability to move from college to university or vice-versa. Moreover, there continues to be a lack of credible and readily accessible labour market information that helps inform young people about employment demands and outcomes. Post-secondary partners, along with government, have an onus to address these issues.
Institutions and government are not alone in needing to take responsibility for the current workforce environment. The CCCE and the private sector have a significant role to play in helping to create a better environment for young people to succeed in the job market. The reality, as the report notes, is that there continues to be falling investment in training by the private sector in Canada. There is a need for more collaboration with schools to offer paid experiential learning positions in business environments. Education is not a process that finishes with a diploma or degree. Business, employees and government need to acknowledge the lifelong nature of learning and be willing to invest in their employees.
Similar to investment in training, Canadian business is also behind many peer nations in spending on research and development. Canada spends less than 1.7% of its GDP, compared to an OECD average of 2.4% on research and development. Private sector investment in research and development is particularly poor in comparison to other countries. Not only does this leave us falling behind in development of new products and services, but leaves many recent graduates students unable to find work in new and innovative fields.
The CCCE is a vital stakeholder in this national discussion regarding connecting young people and jobs. They have already taken an admirable role in leading the discourse around these important issues. Through it all, it is imperative that we have these discussions guided by facts rather than ideology. It’s too important not to.
 TD Economics, Jobs in Canada: Where, What, and for Whom? October 22, 2013, http://www.td.com/document/PDF/economics/special/JobsInCanada.pdf
 Colleges Ontario, 2014 Environmental Scan, http://www.collegesontario.org/research/2014_environmental_scan/CO_EnvScan_2014_PROFILES_WEB.pdf