Webinar: Labour market leaders tackle the skills vs credentials dilemma

Mark Mann
June 24, 2020

A webinar hosted by Research Money in partnership with Mitacs saw labour market leaders discuss key challenges and opportunities for the future of work in Canada. Moderated by Jeffrey Crelinsten, publisher and CEO at Research Money and president at the Impact Group, the conversation included Steven Tobin, executive director of the Labour Market Information Council; Kelly Gallagher-Mckay, director of research and evaluation at the Future Skills Centre; and John Hepburn, CEO and scientific director of Mitacs.

The conversation tracked the disjunct that can exist between post-secondary institutions, industry, and government. To narrow the gap, said Tobin, we need to get our definitions straight, and that means making a stronger distinction between credentials and skills. The problem is that we habitually use credentials as a proxy for skills, he says: “These are two fundamentally different things." For example, employers often make the mistake of looking for credentials when what they want are skills. “In the past, having a credential was enough to succeed, and we know that’s no longer the case,” Tobin said. “Credentials need to be complemented in some form by skills.”

Fostering more collaboration on labour market development requires clarifying the conversation around skills. Credentials are well understood, but skills are harder to parse. For example, what do we mean by “soft skills” and “hard skills”? We have a lot of work to do in the skills space, says Tobin, if we want individuals, employers and educators to speak the same language.

Gallagher-Mckay further developed this line of reasoning by pointing out that skills travel with us and allow us to port across career pathways. Since increased turnover is anticipated in the future economy, skills can confer a sense of confidence and navigability to go into different contexts.

“We have, quite frankly, a long history of limited success at predicting what we’re going to need for the future,” Gallagher-Mckay said. “As we expect quantum leaps in terms of how our economy develops and changes, our forecasting skills go further and further downhill. [But] skills have a little more permanence and I think there’s a little more optimism about how skills forecasting might take us forward in terms of being able to help people feel confident in looking toward an uncertain and quick-changing future.”

Hepburn pointed out that we also need to rethink the way we define qualifications. PhD programs are still using an old model of mentorship, where a senior mentor takes a junior PhD student under her wing and teaches technical skills, but isn’t qualified to teach professional skills for the workforce, given that most will end up outside the academic sector. Industry internships, of the sort facilitated by Mitacs, offer a partial solution.

“The universities typically try and push knowledge out. We go to industry, find out what the problems are, and then seek partnerships that are going to solve them,“ says Hepburn. What follows is a two-way learning: Industry learns that there’s real value to be had from the contributions of people obtaining PhDs, while PhD students acquire a fascination for solving industry’s problems.

The culture gap between employers and institutions runs deeper than the skills vs qualifications question, however. “There’s often a relationship of mutual blame,” said Galagher-Mckay. “Universities think that people are ready to go, and employers consistently say, No, they’re not.” Both sides contribute to the problems, and both contribute to the solutions, which includes acknowledging the fact that applied and theoretical learning have important roles to play.

What might bridge the culture gap? One place to start is by acknowledging shared values: “The fundamental interest in complex problem-solving…. should be something that’s valued across both domains,” said Gallagher-Mckay.

Watch the video of the full webinar to hear the rest of this discussion. 


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