A young man shuffled into the interview room and slumped into a chair. He had jumped through the hoops of postsecondary education and seemed to be, at least on paper, a promising candidate. Yet, he was unable to convince an employer desperate to fill the job that he was the right person. He lacked communication skills, and didn’t pass the reading comprehension test. The position went unfilled.
The Canadian Chamber of Commerce recently launched a campaign to advise Canadians of a looming work-force shortage. But such a shortage isn’t “looming” at all; it’s already here, especially in Western Canada, where a lack of appropriate applicants is the largest challenge facing employers. Ironically, other parts of the country are facing punishingly high unemployment rates.
There are three components to the problem of labour shortages. The first two – an aging and shrinking work force, and a knowledge-skills shortage – have been well documented. But the third is a shortage of the essential skills required in any job.
Essential skills include communicating, working with others and thinking abstractly. We usually call these “people skills,” and if you don’t have them, you’re unlikely to succeed in Canada’s 21st-century workplace. Also included are the abilities to read text and numbers, use a computer and learn new material. If you’ve emerged from the K-12 school system without these skills, your career potential is limited.
Sadly, too many people lack the required level of essential skills to fully participate and succeed in today’s increasingly knowledge and service-based economy. This deficit makes it harder to recruit workers, or to promote and retain them. It also means that customer service is poorer, error rates are higher, productivity is lower and, ultimately, net profits are weaker.
The perfect storm of labour shortages comes into clear focus when you consider all three components. First, our work force is set to shrink quickly because the baby boomers are entering retirement age and had relatively fewer children. Second, the knowledge and training needed to perform the jobs in our changing economy have been steadily rising. Most new jobs require postsecondary education. While 85 per cent of our youth attend postsecondary programs before their 25th birthday, we still have towns where more than 70 per cent of the adults don’t have a high-school diploma.
These two problems require good policy decisions and multiple approaches. Immigration, for instance, might help offset the shrinking work force but, in itself, is not the answer, since many of our recent immigrants also lack the necessary level of essential skills. And if postsecondary students lack essential skills, their schooling won’t have maximum impact.
So how can you instill in someone the soft “people skills” that are so vitally important? How can you teach a person the difference between learning to read and reading to learn? Can anything be done to bridge the essential skills gap?
Fortunately, we can improve the essential skills levels of our work force by providing learner-centred, relevant training to people in a variety of settings and through a variety of methods. Workplace training, literacy and numeracy programs, and community learning programs all are good places to start. Without strong communities and support groups, young people can fall through the cracks. It’s only by being in community with others that the essential skills can be learned.
Investing in machinery and education is critical. Investing in Canadians’ essential skills for living, learning and working is just as important but much less recognized or understood. Our hapless young man in the interview room and the company needing to hire him are counting on it.
Janet Lane is executive director of Literacy Alberta. Todd Hirsch is a Calgary-based economist and author of The Boiling Frog Dilemma .