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Skills-Focused Learning and Expanding Opportunities

Post-secondary students choose their area of study for any number of reasons - interest, career aspirations, or perhaps mere convenience. One thing that post-secondary students should leave their education with, is the feeling that they were given ample opportunity to learn in their areas of interest. There has been an increase in conversations around the idea that the post-secondary sector must respond to the needs of employers, and industries must collaborate in order to sufficiently prepare the next generation of employees for the modern workforce. In the midst of these conversations, students have expressed dissatisfaction with the opportunities afforded to them to develop the skills that employers seek.

According to a report published by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, entitled “Minding the Gap?” – current post-secondary students perceive there to be a gap between the skills they develop at university and those that will be required of them in the workforce. In the same study, students reported wishing that they had more exposure to a number of skills, such as financial literacy and business etiquette. More than half of the survey respondents indicated that they were either “not really” or “not at all” developing financial literacy skills or IT/digital literacy skills. Student respondents repeatedly voiced that they wished they had the opportunity to develop the skills that will be required of them in the workforce.

The Business Council of Canada published a report in 2018 entitled “Navigating Change” – on the Business Council Skills Survey. When considering the top five areas of skills shortages, they were: information technology, skilled trades, analytics/statistics, engineering, and management. Some of the skills areas students indicated wanting to learn are mirrored in reported skills shortages. According to the same report by the Business Council, employers list the top five skills for entry-level hires to be: teamwork/interpersonal skills, communication skills, problem-solving, analytical capabilities, and resiliency.

Students in business-focused programs spend their degree perfecting interpersonal skills, relationship building, professionalism, and business etiquette. These students are exposed to opportunities to develop networking skills, financial literacy, and so on. Students in computer science and engineering are equipped with the ability to utilize technological tools and develop high levels of digital literacy. Students in an arts-specific or humanities based programs develop their communication skills – completing written assignments and oral presentations on a weekly basis. It is not straight forward or easily accessible for students to develop skills that fall outside of the skills developed within their chosen program. Students are often limited to a certain amount of electives, or cannot access courses in other areas. For example, a student in philosophy may develop advanced levels of literacy, public speaking, debate, and critical thinking – but be denied any opportunities to develop their business etiquette skills. The gap in skills development is often remedied by students taking on co-curricular positions, taking courses in other faculties, or using online learning platforms. Although co-curricular opportunities are a great avenue for students to develop additional skills, institutions should ensure students have the necessary resources and opportunities to further develop their skills.

Students do not need to be a jack of all trades. Students should not be required to develop skills in areas that do not interest them. However, there is merit in considering that students should be able to develop skills that are of interest to them, particularly when employers consider them to either be important or at a shortage right now. There are plenty of possibilities to consider in how to provide students with more opportunities to develop skills. For example, the Government of Ontario purchased a three-year licence to Lynda.com to provide students with open access to the skills-focused learning platform. Another example is institutions strengthening the network of entry-level courses, allowing for open enrollment for skills areas that transcend any specific area of study. More specifically, the provincial government should provide targeted funding for institutions should expand their network of entry level courses.