Education opportunities can’t be tied to what’s hot today

Created 28 May 2014 02:05

Op-ed from Robert Clift appeared in the Vancouver Sun

A resource boom appears to be around the corner, but we shouldn’t shove our students toward education tracks they don’t want to pursue, writes Robert Clift.

When I was a kid, my family depended on B. C.’ s natural resource sector. My dad earned a comfortable living for us working in secondary industries that provided equipment and services to this sector. But it wasn’t always easy.

We lived through a slump in the forest sector in the early 1970s, a bigger forestry slump while I was in high school, and then the boom and bust of Tumbler Ridge and northeast coal while I was in college and university.

My dad started his working life as a mechanic and worked his way up into management. I know he wanted me to follow in his footsteps, but I saw bigger opportunities in the emerging field of microcomputers. Given his own experience, he saw the logic in my decision and did all he could to support my studying computing science and mathematics at Fraser Valley College and SFU.

As I finished my studies in the late 1980s, I emerged into a slump in demand for computing professionals. Fortunately, I had both a well- rounded university education and additional skills I picked up from extracurricular activities. I was able to apply this formal and informal learning to other opportunities, and my career went in directions I could have never imagined in high school.

Since then, I’ve lived through several more booms and busts, and watched governments of all political stripes try to cope with labour market uncertainty. What I’ve learned from this experience is that although individuals and governments can try to predict the labour market and make good-faith decisions based on those predictions, the economy is far more fickle than we’d like.

This is why I find the B. C. government’s announcement that it plans to “re- engineer” B. C.’ s education system to more closely align it with labour market predictions very troubling. I followed those predictions as a kid and they didn’t pan out.

A 2007 report on the reliability of labour market predictions prepared for B. C.’ s Ministry of Advanced Education found that although these predictions can be accurate in the short term and in very specific circumstances, they show considerably less reliability in the longer term or across a broad range of occupations.

In any event, university and college graduates are already getting jobs.

According to the government’s own surveys, almost 90 per cent are in the labour force two years after graduation, and a large proportion of those not in the labour force are taking further studies.

So, the problem is not the employability of B. C. university and college graduates. The real problem is that the provincial government doesn’t want to invest new money to support its new and uncertain liquefied natural gas, or LNG, initiative.

I find this curious given the government’s projections of massive revenues from LNG. If the premier is so certain of the financial return from LNG, why not borrow the money now to train the necessary workers to create the massive payoff later? This is what a business person with a solid business plan would do.

Since the government isn’t planning to make any new investments in post- secondary education, this means some current students are going to pay the price for the LNG dream. Premier Christy Clark is poised to tell us which education programs are worthwhile and possibly cut funding for the others. The government’s own survey results show that within two years of graduation, 90 per cent of fine and performing arts graduates are in the labour force, as are 95 per cent of education graduates, and 88 per cent of human and social service graduates.

So much for the stories of unemployed artists, teachers and social workers.

Once again, the problem is not with the employability of university and college graduates. Rather, it’s with the B. C. government’s understanding of how the labour market really works.

As my personal example demonstrates, even when a student takes an educational program directly related to an employment outcome, any number of factors might lead that graduate in a different direction.

Premier Clark should trust the decisions students and their families make. Instead of deciding for students which programs are more worthwhile than others, Clark ought to concentrate on creating new educational opportunities for those young people her government has left on the sidelines.

Robert Clift is executive director of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of B. C.