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Education to fill “skills gap” is risky, parents say

Employers say they can't find workers for the jobs they do have, while our unemployment rate is not returning to pre-recessionary levels. We were curious about whether parents are paying attention to the debate on the "skills gap" and advising their children to think about the skilled trades or science careers. So we asked the Globe and Mail's Parent Council to tell us about their family's education conversations. These are some of their comments:

Follow your passion

I have a 10-year-old who thinks about her future a lot, and it's something we chat about as a family as she explores her interests and ponders what's she's going to be when she grows up.

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I have a degree in English, and my husband has a degree in Philosophy. We run our own successful web development and marketing agency, and work with education and social innovation-based start-ups as mentors and advisors. I completely believe that our postsecondary "training" has been instrumental in our success – particularly in developing our faculties in critical thinking and the strong written and verbal communication skills that are absolutely critical in our line of work.

Learning digital skills (coding, programming, design) has come as we have needed to adapt to the changing workplace, but everything we "practised" in our postsecondary education comes into play every single day. Had I gone and done a technical degree in 1995, I would have had to upgrade my skills as time progressed, but I would have missed out on the opportunity to combine the study of my areas of interest and passion (literature, writing, creating).

The best example we can set for our daughter is to show her that we are happy and satisfied in our line of work. She sees that we work hard, but she sees that enthusiasm for our work infuses all of the things we do as a family as well. She knows that we chose our university majors based on interest and passion, and she also knows that we spend a lot of time learning and re-learning and working hard to stay relevant in our business. She is particularly keen on music and books and writing right now. Would I ever steer her into something more vocational if she expressed a desire to continue her studies in these areas?

Not a chance. – Aerin Guy, Toronto

Parents set expectations

I would be interested in finding out what kinds of discussions and modelling of careers are discussed in households. This may open a can of worms, but different families will have different expectations for their kids.

I have heard parents express their key goal is for their son or daughter to graduate high school. Full stop. This is their best hope. No thought to what might come after, to the expectation that a career can be "fulfilling." The expectation is "a job."

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Others have decided that one child will be an engineer and the other a physician ... and this is as they enter into grade 9. The children seem to have no say in this, and there seems to be little vision for other options.

I would expect that a stratification of expectations is maintained by socioeconomic and education level of parents. Parents with postsecondary will likely expect that and model that for their kids. Kids in Toronto who do not even know there is a lake nearby, are not likely to be thinking of becoming a welder and going to Alberta or down east to the ship building projects.

Do immigrant families (parents from elsewhere, children from here) see their kids moving "away" from where the family is currently settled for a career? Many students I have talked to indicate they are only allowed to go to local universities. Otherwise the family will have to move as a whole to the city where the university is located.

Our futures are only as open as the horizons that have been shown to us.

I expect that few students actually have horizons that are open to skill deficit planning. – Steve Masson, Toronto

Jobs aren't everything

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I am a mother of two and a high-school teacher (who can't find work). What I tell my children (and my students) is that the job market is constantly changing, and whatever you do must be something you feel good about doing, and that you feel you are good at. What I feel is important is that all skill sets be recognized as essential and that every path must be walked with dignity. This may seem a bit off topic, but it isn't.

When I was a high-school student, my guidance counselor told me to go to university because I was smart enough, and it would get me a good job. (She lied, btw. Took me three tries to get a degree that did anything other than make me more interesting.) Kids who were not perceived as "smart enough" for university could still make something of themselves if they went to college or trade school. I am now embarking on my 6th year as a licensed teacher, and the best I can do is to sub at the same school for a full week. I've had a couple of terms, but nobody has offered me a full time job because there aren't any. Kids I went to school with who got business diplomas or journeyman's papers all have full time jobs, that they qualified for while I was still an undergrad.

That said, I would not go back and do trade school instead of university. I won't push my children in either direction. Academics are also dignified. There are careers that require the kind of thinking that is fostered in a university atmosphere. I imagine that an immigration officer (for example) would have better public relations with his/ her clients if that officer had studied human geography or cultural anthropology.

I think kids need to be taught the importance of balancing financial stability/ security with personal satisfaction and contentment, and then let loose. By the time my children are old enough to enter a profession, the "skills gap" may have closed or shifted. – Heather Forgie, Winnipeg, MB

Combine school, learning

There are also many initiatives in different boards to attempt to address this "skills gap" as many high schools now offer specialized programs, internships, apprenticeships and special trades-based diplomas.

There are also other initiatives that are beginning much earlier than high school such as the Essential Skills curriculum which is slowly rolling out of the TDSB. This curriculum –which is to be embedded in already existing curriculum not added on – focuses on highlighting "transferable" or essential skills which can be used in any pathway a student may take. While this is not a board-wide initiative yet, it is an example of how this idea of the "skills gap" is being tackled on the front lines. – C.D. Borges, Toronto

Wages, not skills at issue

I write this as a parent who has to worry about advising his own child, and as a teacher who has the responsibility of advising the children of others.

The recent Harper government announcement about the new $15,000 skilled trades allowance has many tongues wagging here in Nova Scotia. However, I believe a word of caution may be warranted.

I have recently heard it said locally that we don't necessarily suffer from a shortage of skilled trades workers, but rather that we suffer from a shortage of skilled trades workers who are willing to stay in Nova Scotia and work for half the money they can make in Alberta.

The skilled trades have certainly been in the spotlight here in Nova Scotia since the announcement of the multibillion dollar government ship building contract. However, there is a part of me that worries that we must not be too trades heavy in our educational focus. It has been commented that we in Canada have far too many young people with bachelor's degrees working at minimum wage jobs. I believe that it is imperative that we try to ensure that we are not, in our haste to employ our youth, saying the same thing about skilled trades workers 10 years from now. - Grant Frost, Dartmouth, N.S.

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