Rethinking Canadian vocational education
The role of education in increasing national economic competitiveness has been a key focus in K-to-12 and post-secondary education in Canada and other OECD countries for over three decades. School reforms in many parts of Canada in the 1990s encouraged closer ties between schools and businesses and the promotion of school choice through quasi-markets in education, both within a context of decreased public funding. In this climate, youth were increasingly asked to invest in their employability.
The goal of developing an enterprise culture, which requires individuals to take responsibility for their own welfare, is currently reinforced by the popular discourse of skills mismatch—a shift from the earlier focus on increasing formal educational attainment to address skills shortage. While the discourse of skills shortage called for public investments in human capital, current public investments are targeted to high demand occupational areas. Today’s youth are asked to view their education, training, and career choices through a labour market lens to increase their chances of securing viable employment.
This presentation looks at the implications of skills mismatch discourse for high school education. I argue that this discourse, perpetuated by Canadian governments and employers, continues to hold educational institutions responsible for economic problems. Further, one solution to skills mismatch is to stream different students into different “career pathways,” a response that is likely to perpetuate social inequality if it does not also address the persistent academic-vocational divide. After documenting the emergence of skills mismatch discourse, I discuss its problematic aspects and propose alternatives.
*(I use the words allotted to method below to discuss outcomes since this is more of a 'thought piece' than report of specific study).
This paper is inspired by my research into high school apprenticeships and youth transitions conducted over a ten-year period (Taylor, 2016).
From skills shortage to skills mismatch discourse
In the early 1990s, the Conference Board of Canada began to hold annual conferences to promote school-business partnerships and released an employability skills profile to inform educators about the skills business leaders wanted to see in graduates (Taylor, 1998). The focus on dropouts and employability skills was rooted in concerns about a general shortage of skilled labour to meet the needs of a global “knowledge economy.”
But current policy discourse emphasizes the need to produce a better match between youth skills and actual labour market requirements rather than simply more skilled graduates. This discursive shift partly reflects the increase in average educational attainment over time. Fifty-three percent of Canadians aged 25 to 64 had some level of tertiary education in 2012—the highest rate among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries (Canadian Education Statistics Council, 2014).
Critique of skills mismatch discourse
While the discourse of skills mismatch suggests that lack of formal educational attainment of the Canadian population is no longer the problem, it fails to confront reasons for job-skills mismatch that go beyond the inadequacies of the education system.
Several educational researchers in the UK and Canada have countered the pervasive view that educational reform will solve economic problems, suggesting instead that:
• Employers’ needs are diverse, sometimes contradictory and ever-changing and therefore shouldn’t dictate curriculum (Gleeson & Keep, 2004);
• Economic problems are not just about worker skills but rather are often related to government policies (Lloyd & Payne, 2002);
• UK writers suggest the problem is more likely to be rooted in a lack of “good” jobs than a lack of worker skill (Brown & Lauder, 2006). In Canada, Livingstone (1999) concurs that most mismatch problems involve workers with more formal education than is needed for jobs rather than less.
Skills mismatch discourse also tends to ignore the issue of which groups experience most problems in the labour market. For example, the groups most likely to experience underemployment include young people, recent immigrants, people of colour, women, and people with disabilities. Therefore, there is a need to question the wisdom of policy responses to skill underutilization that are preoccupied with education and training as solutions to economic problems, rather than looking also at labour market and workplace reforms.
Implications of skills mismatch discourse for high school education:
The discourse of skills mismatch suggests the need to more effectively stream different groups of students into different “career pathways,” based on their achievement levels. However, streaming of students has historically perpetuated social inequality given the persistent academic-vocational division in curriculum and related occupational status hierarchy.
An alternative vision
I argue for a connective theoretical-vocational curriculum rooted in a commitment to social justice. I agree with writers in the UK and Europe, who advocate for a unified curriculum to redress the problems of academic–vocational separation (e.g., Raffe et al., 1998). Hager and Hyland (2003) argue for “rich and deep” vocational education, which stresses the full intellectual and social meaning of a vocation, prepares youth for lifelong learning, and is underpinned by social, moral, and aesthetic values—in particular, communitarian and public service values. Ensuring that all youth are able to participate in a range of experiential learning opportunities, including project-based learning in communities would help to break down the division between academic and vocational knowledge, and formal and informal learning. Many writers, myself included, believe that the way forward requires us to engage in critical connective approaches to education for all students—approaches that do not subordinate codified curricular knowledge to experiential knowledge, but instead explore the linkages and possibilities as students cross the boundaries between school and work.
Brown, P. and Lauder, H. (2006). Globalization, knowledge and the myth of the magnet economy. Globalisation, societies and education, 4(1): 25-57.
Canadian Education Statistics Council. (2014). Education indicators in Canada: An international perspective 2014. Statistics Canada. Retrieved from http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/81-604-x/2014001/hl-fs-eng.htm
Gleeson, D., and Keep, E. (2004). Voice without accountability: The changing relationship between employers, the state, and education in England. Oxford Review of Education, 30(1): 37–63.
Hager, P., & Hyland, T. (2003). Vocational education and training. Education: Book Chapters (Paper 5). Open access provided by University of Bolton Institutional Repository. Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.bolton.ac.uk/ed_chapters/5
Livingstone, D.W. (1999). The education-jobs gap: Underemployment or economic democracy. Toronto: Garamond Press.
Lloyd, C. and Payne, J. (2002). Developing a political economy of skill. Journal of Education and Work, 15 (4): 365 – 390.
Raffe, D., Howieson, C., Spours, K., & M. Young. (1998). The unification of post-compulsory education: Towards a conceptual framework. British Journal of Educational Studies, 46(2): 169–87.
Taylor, A. (1998). Employability skills: From corporate “wish list” to government policy. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 30(2): 143-164.
Taylor, A. (2016). Vocational education in Canada. Don Mills: Oxford University Press.