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College Quarterly
Spring 1994 - Volume 1 Number 3
The Economic Challenge for Canadian Education: Part II
by F. R. Kleiman and Judy Miles

Recently, Arthur Kroeger, who was federal Deputy Minister of Employment and Immigration from 1988 to 1992, has publicly emphasized that Canada has never had a real employment strategy. If we want to keep our standard of living, then we need one fast. We need a bold initiative that recognizes our national employment crisis and proposes solutions in the context of accepting our current time of transition in which we have two economies: the old and the new. One of the troubling paradoxes of the current jobless situation is that with 1.6 million Canadians unemployed, some employers are saying that they cannot find skilled employees. Somewhere between 144,000 and 432,000 Canadians, jobless right now, would be working if they had the needed skills. Skilled machinists are still in demand in the old economy and skilled software engineers are in demand in the new.

The Role of Government

Government must first pursue universality by putting much more emphasis on the 24% of Canadians who leave before completing high school and the 63.7% of graduating high school students who do not immediately go on to postsecondary education and training but enter the labour market with only their high school diploma.

Government has three primary means of achieving this broad goal: disseminating harsh truths about the bleak future of unskilled work awaiting students in elementary and high schools, providing funding through repriorization to encourage the desired changes, and providing an appropriate regulatory framework for desired changes to occur.

A realistic vision of the future is necessary to help refocus despair into development and career planning. A bit of knowledge about the history of unskilled work in North America is important to this understanding. In 1950, unskilled jobs made up about 60% of all employment, but by 1992 they had dropped to 35% and are projected to be only 15% by 2000. Even “McJobs” are disappearing; within the next five years 80% of fast food jobs are expected to disappear because of the introduction of new cooking technology and information systems.

This means funding is needed for curriculum changes for elementary and high schools to provide for employment counselling and trades training, as well as funding apprenticeship and co-op programs that give students real world experience and exposure to working conditions.

Second, government must pursue accountability by setting mandatory levels of achievement in key foundation areas such as language, mathematics and science. Canadian 13-year-olds do not compare favourably with other countries in international science tests. Canada has 2.2 scientists and engineers per 1,000 people, while Germany has 2.7, the U.S. has 3.3 and Japan has 5.0.

Paul Henn, manager of advanced technical training for Chrysler Corporation in Detroit, Michigan, recently told Ontario secondary school teachers from the Halton-Peel Region that the twenty-first century employee will be one who has excellent group skills, is good at problem-solving, is computer literate, displays proficiency in written and spoken communication, and possesses solid technical training in mathematics. One way to ensure preparation for twenty-first century employment might be to establish National Standards for Basic Scientific and Technological Knowledge as basic exit qualifications for all secondary students. As Henn explained, employers do not expect educators to “Étailor your technical training to our specific requirements.” However, employers do expect graduates to be trainable.

Next, government must recognize the important role played by the private sector in education and training. In British Columbia alone, there are over 700 private technical and academic postsecondary educational institutions with over 100,000 students. However, because there is little or no public expenditure on the operation of these institutions, there is virtually no awareness of them among public servants, the main conduit to schools and students for information about course offerings.

Government has understandably concentrated on the public institutions for which it has direct responsibility. Despite the size and rapid growth of private postsecondary education to fill the gaps in other educational systems, it is seldom included in provincial or national planning and discussion in education, nor in the regular channels of educational information dissemination. Despite the considerable regulatory clout of the provincial governments, a chasm of communication and articulation exists between the private and public sectors in education. The result works to the great disadvantage of the consumers of education and training. It is clearly not in the interest of either the financially hard-pressed educational authorities nor of the students to ignore the huge resource represented by private postsecondary education in Canada. Continuity among all levels and sectors of education with resulting articulation and connectivity would seem to be highly desirable.

Finally, government must change the regulatory framework to abolish the gulf between vocational training and academic training. Ontario has an innovative School Workplace Apprenticeship Program that allows high school students to earn the academic credits they need for college or university even as they learn a trade like auto mechanics. Innovative for Canada, this combination is not strange in Europe where engineers are required to have trades training. Reducing the number of educational dead ends where the student has to make an enormous effort to move from one type of education to another would expand the pool of potential participants.

The Role of Postsecondary Education

First, to enhance the mentifacturing economy, (refer to Part I) we must end the movement of institutions created for very different purposes in the direction of the universities. Community colleges, for example, were begun by the provinces with extensive financial support from the federal government to provide postsecondary education directed toward specific employment opportunities and not to mimic California-style junior colleges. Nonetheless, the temptation to transform themselves into university transfer institutions is considerable and betrays their original mandate and ongoing responsibility.

Second, we must provide for the integration of managerial expertise with technical expertise. Technical knowledge is needed but rarely found in top management jobs. In the late 1980s among Fortune 500 company CEOs, only 4% came from production while 34% had marketing backgrounds, 24% general management and 25% finance. In the United States, only 30% of CEOs, compared to over 70% in Germany and Japan, have technical backgrounds.

Why is this significant for the mentifacturing economy? Speed is an important feature of the new economy. A lack of technical expertise on the part of North American CEOs has been noted as a major factor in the slowness of several industrial areas to adapt to such new methods as statistical quality control, just-in-time inventory scheduling, and flexible manufacturing stations. Competitive disadvantage is the result.

Third, we must encourage government regulators to break down outdated barriers between academic and vocational programs. An increasing number of university graduates go back to postsecondary studies to learn specific job skills; at the same time skilled tradespeople need more cognitive flexibility in the new world. The blending of vocational and avocational learning is a key element in education for the new jobs that are emerging. William Waite, CEO of Siemens, for example, sees the need for a totally new occupation: automated equipment specialist. This person would combined the skills of an electrician, mechanic and hydraulics expert with the “academic” skills needed to monitor and repair robots and other automated machines. At Ontario's Zepf Technologies, Larry Zepf describes the modern tradesperson: “It's not uncommon,” he says, “for [an employee] to have a machinist's paper and a millwright's paper and to have CAD expertise and also be a [service technician] who is willing to fly to Europe on short notice. [Such a person] has got to be able to analyse and make decisions.” Such a person could make as much as $70,000 annually.

Finally, we must make skills upgrading more accessible for working adults. In British Columbia, for instance, it is very difficult for an applied technician to move up to the technologist level of certification since most of the necessary courses are offered in the day time only at one technical institute. It is essential that part-time studies be more widely available, using a wider range of program delivery methods.

The Necessary Partners in a National Strategy

Government, labour, business, the public and private sectors in education and training, and the broad citizenry all need to be committed and enthusiastic partners in a multi-pronged and intensive campaign to keep us wealthy.

When Syncrude Canada tested over 1000 applicants with Grade 12 high school diplomas, they found that less than 60% met their requirements for basic reading and writing comprehension. Syncrude President Eric Newell pointed to two concerns: a high school diploma did not mean that the holder had the necessary competencies for even the most basic entry level jobs and that “we as business were doing a poor job of communicating our requirements to educators.” Syncrude has responded with a number of innovative partnerships with postsecondary institutions including community colleges, technical institutes and a university. The corporation also has a workplace literacy program developed with Keyano College and another Keyano-Syncrude project aimed at helping both male and female employees shift from administrative to multi-skilled technical roles. At the secondary level, Syncrude has high school arrangements with both the Catholic and Public School Boards in Fort MacMurray. It is this active interest and involvement by a responsible corporation that provides a prototype for successful collaboration in the future.

On the other hand, Waite of Siemens has had a frustrating experience in his attempts to bring components of Germany's famous apprenticeship program to Canada's electrical and electronics industries. Still facing a skills shortage, the company could fill only four of eighteen jobs despite receiving 270 resumes. Waite wanted to expand his company's Canadian manufacturing force from 3,000 to 12,000 by the end of the 1990s. From community colleges the company could get some blue collar recruits, but such recruits commonly lacked real world experience and required at least a year of extra training. So, he decided to try to do something about the skills shortage. Though he succeeded in persuading the electrical industry on both the management and union sides to establish a task force on apprenticeship in Canada, he eventually quit as co-chair in frustration. A general unwillingness on both sides to accommodate each other and adjust to emerging circumstances resulted in the failure of business and labour to negotiate a mutually agreeable solution to perceived obstacles. Siemens is not alone, as many companies in such fields as telecommunications, transportation and electronics can offer jobs, but find few acceptable applicants to take them.

Where Do We Go from Here?

After our brief review of the current educational predicament, we must return to a very basic conclusion. Canada is a very big country with a relatively small population which cannot afford the many divisions of authority and direction now evident in education. While we are not prepared to argue at this point for a unified administration of education since centralization is neither a guarantee of efficiency nor wisdom, it is nonetheless a suggestion and a view heard frequently (despite obvious constitutional difficulties). Our preference, however, is to see unity of purpose and commitment among all the relevant stakeholders around an agenda for educational development for the twenty-first century, that looming, arbitrary reference point so near in time, so distant in attainment. Whether or not the leadership will arise to promote the development and implementation of such an agenda remains to be seen.

This is the second of two parts. View Part I

F. R. Kleiman is Principal of Greater Regional Technical College in Victoria, B.C. Judy Miles is Regional Director for B.C. Operations at City University in Vancouver. She is the recent Top Prize winner in the Fraser Institute's competition for ideas about promoting efficiency in government.