President: educating an evolving workforce

Allan Cahoon

Over the next seven years, B.C.’s labour market will need almost one million workers to fulfill expected demand created by an aging workforce opting for retirement. That’s roughly the population of the City of Edmonton.

A new report by the Conference Board of Canada, PSE Skills for a Prosperous British Columbia: 2016 Edition, says unless we keep pace with that demand, the province will forgo close to $8 billion in GDP and $1.8 billion in tax revenues.

Government has responded by targeting 25 per cent of its post-secondary education funding to those projected jobs in its Skills for Jobs Blueprint and by supporting associated infrastructure needs.

Students are moving to the high-demand programs, but many universities and colleges in the province are constrained by eight years of frozen operational funding. They face challenges in adjusting their programs and offerings to reflect and meet the changing demands. Others, like Royal Roads University, have surpassed the numbers of domestic seats funded by the province. Those who have been successful at embracing the province’s call for a 50 per cent increase in international enrolments have also been able to adjust to meet some demand.

While government and institutions work to meet the demand, the report, which surveyed more than 300 B.C. employers and experts from four major economic sectors in the province, suggests it’s more than just a numbers game.

Employers are not simply looking for people with job-specific skills, they are looking for the competencies that come only with university and college educations – and that demand is growing.

As we transition from a resource-based economy (forestry, mining, fisheries and oil and gas) into a knowledge-based economy, the shelf life for job-specific, technical training is declining and being replaced with the behavioural skills that allow employees to stay on top of changing technological and workplace expectations. We need to design post-secondary education around the skills required for the workforce of the future: complex problem solving and critical thinking; creativity and cognitive flexibility; teamwork and service orientation; social intelligence; and effective communications.

The critical issues today’s decision makers face are not neatly addressed by a traditional singular discipline-based education. The issues now are too complex, and require a broader way of thinking and approach.

The good news is universities are adapting and equipping the workforce with the competencies not only needed for today’s jobs, but for tomorrow’s as well. We are doing this for students beginning their careers, and for people who want to continue to develop their careers through life-long learning.

From the beginning, Royal Roads’ focus has been to prepare working professionals to be leaders and decision makers with an interdisciplinary, problem-solving approach, taking the best perspectives and ideas from multiple subjects and introducing them in new and thought-provoking ways to help students create innovative solutions.

In teams, both online and in the classroom, students explore not just how to approach the work, but how to work with others more effectively to get the work done.

The post-secondary sector is also partnering more with business and will do more to expand work integrated learning opportunities to give students more practical experience.

We are also customizing educational needs for employers and their staff, in many cases offering a menu of programs that ladder into diplomas, certificates and degrees, delivered as needed, when demanded, and offered conveniently to accommodate work schedules.

Those same opportunities are also being extended to newcomers to Canada who seek efficient ways to upgrade credentials to B.C. standards.

Universities like Royal Roads are also creating additional culturally responsive and reflective educational pathways to encourage and welcome more Indigenous post-secondary students.
B.C.’s highly differentiated advanced education sector fosters adaption, innovation and an increased level of accountability through its demand-based teaching and strong community connections.

By adapting our sector and equipping our students with the competencies they need and by working collaboratively with business and government, we can develop innovative solutions to quench the building thirst for the leaders of tomorrow in this province.

[This opinion-editorial was originally published in the Times Colonist on Dec. 15, 2016]