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By Paul Davidson, President of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, and Paul Soubry, President and CEO of New Flyer, North America’s largest bus manufacturer and parts-supply company.

When University of Manitoba business student Dale Camuyong was nominated for – and won – an award as his school's best co-op student of 2013, what were the qualities that so impressed his employer? Given that this employer was a bus manufacturing company, you might think that a sharply focused set of technical skills was critical. In fact, however, what New Flyer Industries cited about Camuyong's performance was a strikingly diverse set of skills and qualities: not just human resources knowledge, but leadership, initiative, teamwork, dedication, professionalism and a sense of humour.

This example shows something important about the relationship between employers and Canadian institutions of higher education. What employers are looking for is not just a high level of specialized skills, but a larger ensemble of social qualities – sometimes called "soft skills" – needed to do the jobs in today's labour market.

Just what those soft skills are and how Canada's universities, colleges and trade schools can and should teach them, is one of the most hotly debated questions in our nation's public and economic policy. Most stakeholders in industry and higher education agree that a core part of these institutions' mission – even if not the entirety of that mission – consists in producing graduates suited to the needs of today's labour market. And all parties agree that getting a good match between employers' needs and workers' fit with those needs has huge economic implications.

quote.pngIt's not a matter of promoting one kind of education as opposed to the others; just because Canada may need more plumbers or welders doesn't mean it needs fewer history graduates or urban planners.

More data on labour market needs would better inform the discussion. But the consistent message from employers is that they're looking for people who fit today's collaborative workplaces, which call for interaction, team skills and leadership. As Canadian companies become increasingly global in their activities, so does their need for workers capable of doing business across cultural and national boundaries. That kind of 'fit' with workplace needs is so valuable that most employers prefer to hire for fit and then train for specialized skills rather than the other way around.

Canadian universities, colleges and trade schools know they're being called on by employers to teach more about skills in collaboration, cultural awareness and team dynamics. Universities already do this well, and are preparing to do even more in years ahead. All institutions also know that they owe it to their students to provide an education that fosters adaptability in the face of changing labour markets and the trend toward more career changes during their working lives.  As Todd Hirsh, chief economist with ATB Financial, noted in this newspaper last month, "What post-secondary education needs to do – be it through a liberal arts degree or a polytechnic program – is prepare the students not for a job, but for a lifetime of morphing careers."

In many respects, universities are already getting a lot of this right. According to a survey by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, most large employers in Canada are either satisfied or extremely satisfied with the quality of education given to the university students who go on to join their workforce. With half of all undergraduates already taking part in co-ops and internships, that's helping create the workplace fit that employers are looking for.

Western University's commitment to students' success doesn't end with graduation, and career coach Sarah Dawson aims to build lifelong relationships with alumni.
PHOTO: Alexander Mazurkevich/iStock

Yet much remains to be done in producing higher education graduates suited to today's labour market needs. A good starting point would be the recognition that many kinds of education are in demand, spanning the entire gamut from advanced university degrees to college and trades training. It's not a matter of promoting one kind of education as opposed to the others; just because Canada may need more plumbers or welders doesn't mean it needs fewer history graduates or urban planners.

For their part, policy-makers could help by embracing a broad rather than narrow definition of the skills that higher education should convey: not just technical know-how but team work, multi-dimensional thinking and cross-cultural competencies. They should also keep in mind the need to produce workers with the adaptability to succeed in a future of increasing career and labour market changes. They should work with partners in business and post-secondary education to gather and analyze better labour market data, in order to have reliable information on which to base decisions about directions for post-secondary education in Canada. Finally, they should be prepared to invest in internships and global experience for Canadian students in order to foster the kinds of soft skills employers are looking for.

We can't know everything about the labour market needs of the future, but we do know that flexibility, variety and fit will be essential. If industry, higher education institutions and policy-makers work more closely together to realize those goals, we'll be doing right by students, workers, employers and Canada's economic prosperity.