Universities Lead the OECD in Delivering a Skilled Workforce

By Suzanne Kresta

At this time of year, when peace and reflection are cherished, many of us look to the future, review the past and consider the state of the nation. As a dean of engineering, I have the privilege of working with students, seeing them grow into their profession, and define their vision for the future of this great country.

We have many serious challenges to address as we face the next decade. The future of work frames all of them. How we educate the workforce is part of the solution.

It is fair and reasonable for taxpayers to ask if universities have delivered on the promises made by the leaders who invested in education at the dawn of Confederation. Have universities kept pace with the needs of our economy?

Since 1950, the size of the Canadian labor force has increased by 3.6 times. According to Statistics Canada, over the same period, the number of university degrees awarded has multiplied by 18 times.

According to the 2014 Education at a Glance report by the OECD, Canada has the highest percent of population aged 25-64 with some form of tertiary (past high school) education. Canada sits at 53% of the population versus the OECD average of 32%.

We have increased the availability of education to people entering the workforce from 18% to 80% since 1950. Specifically, engineering enrollment across the country has increased by 2% per year since 1991.

At the same time, life expectancy, quality of life, employment and literacy are all up significantly. We should be proud of this record. But what do high literacy and education levels mean for the future workforce?

The very meaning of work is changing. Rather than using humans to do work that can be done more safely by machines, we need skilled workers who can be the bosses of machines. This work requires creativity and insight, so craftspeople and precision tradespeople will still be needed, along with university graduates.

Many industries have already shifted from a simple negotiated exchange of goods to adaptive relationships which build shared value. Adaptability is now a core expectation for success across all organizations. Customer service is central to all longstanding relationships.

The skills we need in the future workforce, according to the RBC Humans Wanted Report, have shifted from manual labor to skilled trades, analytical thinking, problem solving and design work. Engineers are part of this solution.

Are universities adapting to the changing job market?

University leaders are very aware of future job skills reports and are actively moving to incorporate changes into their programs. This is partly in response to dramatically reduced government funding which forces transformation in our business models and partly in response to messages we are hearing from industry and from government.

We are listening and we are looking to the future. Equipping our students for the job market and for the challenges they will face is our first priority. While there are always portions of an organization which resist change, I see a great vision for the future among my colleagues across our country – and I see action on the ground at the University of Saskatchewan and elsewhere.

As we move into a new decade, we should be proud of Canada’s investment in post-secondary education, and proud of our national and provincial leaders who recognized that a more skilled workforce would be needed for the jobs of today and the leaders of tomorrow.

Suzanne Kresta is the Dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Saskatchewan. She graduated with her first engineering degree in 1986 from the University of New Brunswick.