Education vs. Innovation: The Future of Jobs in Canada
Photo courtesy of Canning Town Caravanserai
The recent Maclean’s article entitled “The Future of Jobs in Canada – Why Canada doesn’t work“ by Chris Sorensen helpfully described the future of employment in Canada, but in doing so it reminded me of a well-known issue that all developed societies face: that education and the workforce do not correlate as much as they should.
As Sorensen noted, there is a “skills mismatch” between workers and jobs, and as millions of baby boomers retire in the next few decades, there will be and already is a “massive shortage” of skilled workers to take their place. Sorensen remarks, “The country is in dire need of engineers, health workers and skilled trades people. Yet tens of thousands of students continue to pursue degrees in the arts and humanities.”
The article names other factors that contribute to and help mend the current shortage of skilled labour in the workforce, but at its core, the “skills mismatch” is an issue of education meeting the demands of the economy.
A possible solution to the skills mismatch? Reform the education system in order to better serve the needs of a changing economy. Nobina Robinson, the CEO of Polytechnics Canada, states in the article that “The knowledge economy is always saying we need more M.B.A.s and Ph.D.s. But to come up with big discoveries and innovative breakthroughs, you actually need people who can make, design and build things, too.”
Obviously, Robinson is right to a certain degree. There is only so much need – and room – for M.B.A.’s, Ph.D.’s, and M.D.’s, and yet these are the careers that we revere and direct our youth to. I know this all to well, as I too was once a medical school hopeful before I found out that others who were smarter and more motivated than myself were also medical school hopefuls. Something had to give, and in this case it was me. In hindsight, my decision not to pursue medical school was indeed the right decision, but I, like many university students, did not know that at the time.
This is, I am sure, part of the reason why Sorensen noted that 20 per cent of college applicants looking for a specialized career in the trades already have a university degree. That is an astonishing number, and one that should force us to re-evaluate the efficacy of our university programs. But, does that number mean, as it is so often implied when it is used, that a university degree is rendered useless or a waste of time and money if a student does not get a job in their area of undergraduate study?
In some cases it may be a waste of time, but in other cases — I would argue in most cases — it is not a waste of time. So my fear, and the reason I write this article, is that when we talk about a “skills mismatch” in the workforce or wasted university degrees, we are in danger of focusing our education so much on the needs of the present that we will forget the lessons of the past.
The problem with serving the needs of the present or the needs of innovation, as it is often put, is that innovation is fundamentally destabilizing. Innovation challenges the practices and traditions of the past in order to push development into the future. This doesn’t mean that innovation is bad – often our old practices do need tweaking – it just means that innovation will always be on its own, ahead of the pack, waiting for the others – like education, or policy, or religion – to catch up. And as such, the innovators in the workforce will lament that education is not meeting the needs of an innovating economy and a changing society.
And in many ways the innovators, like Nobina Robinson, are right: if you are not willing to change you will be left behind. This is why the article notes that the “skills mismatch” between education and the workforce “pose(s) the single biggest long-term threat to Canadian economic growth, exacerbating Canada’s already lagging productivity and innovation.”
But if we wish to meet the needs of an innovating economy, an important question to ask is what should we change and what should we keep the same? We obviously don’t or can’t change everything at once, which is why innovations don’t often feel destabilizing. We change, but only enough to ensure that we do not lose our feet from under us.
This is where education, and specifically education on the past, is crucial. In order to know what we must change and what we must keep the same we must use history, with all it’s traditions and practices, as an essential guide. To quote the cultural critic Neil Postman from his book Technopoly, “History is not merely one subject among many that may be taught; every subject has a history, including biology, physics, mathematics, literature, music, and art. I would propose that every teacher must be a history teacher.” History reminds us that innovations have a past and a future and to only focus on the present is to miss out on the important lessons of the past.
I am not saying that we should not encourage our youth to pursue careers in the trades, because we should. And I am not saying that we should not change our education system to meet the practical needs of the present economy, because we should. What I am saying is that if such changes are done in pursuit of a “comfortable middle-class lifestyle” as the article seems to imply, then we need to think carefully about the changes we push for in the education of our youth.
Again, here is Postman on the matter of education: “The most important contribution schools can make to the education of our youth is to give them a sense of coherence in their studies, a sense of purpose, meaning, and interconnectedness in what they learn.” So before we talk about transforming our education system in order to serve the insatiable needs of innovation, we must be sure that we are providing a proper sense of purpose, meaning, and interconnectedness so that the student, once in the workforce and settled nicely into a comfortable middle-class lifestyle, doesn’t end up asking in a moment of existential crisis, what is my place or purpose in this workforce?
What is needed then is a change in our education, but not a wholesale change toward innovation. We need a change that marries innovation with tradition so that students can go into the trades without feeling like they are giving up history, religion, the arts, literature, and music. Because in the end, it appears that the dichotomy we have set-up in our education system between the arts and innovation — or the dichotomy between university and college — may be exactly why Maclean’s can claim that “Canada doesn’t work.”
Why you should travel young
Photo by Geoff Heith
As I write this, I’m flying. It’s an incredible concept: to be suspended in the air, moving at two hundred miles an hour — while I read a magazine. Amazing, isn’t it?
I woke up at three a.m. this morning. Long before the sun rose, thirty people loaded up three conversion vans and drove two hours to the San Juan airport. Our trip was finished. It was time to go home. But we were changed.
As I sit, waiting for the flight attendant to bring my ginger ale, I’m left wondering why I travel at all. The other night, I was reminded why I do it — why I believe this discipline of travel is worth all the hassle.
I was leading a missions trip in Puerto Rico. After a day of work, as we were driving back to the church where we were staying, one of the young women brought up a question.
“Do you think I should go to graduate school or move to Africa?”
I don’t think she was talking to me. In fact, I’m pretty sure she wasn’t. But that didn’t stop me from offering my opinion.
I told her to travel. Hands down. No excuses. Just go.
She sighed, nodding. “Yeah, but…”
I had heard this excuse before, and I didn’t buy it. I knew the “yeah-but” intimately. I had uttered it many times before. The words seem innocuous enough, but are actually quite fatal.
Yeah, but …
… what about debt?
… what about my job?
… what about my boyfriend?
This phrase is lethal. It makes it sound like we have the best of intentions, when really we are just too scared to do what we should. It allows us to be cowards while sounding noble.
Most people I know who waited to travel the world never did it. Conversely, plenty of people who waited for grad school or a steady job still did those things after they traveled.
It reminded me of Dr. Eisenhautz and the men’s locker room.
Dr. Eisenhautz was a German professor at my college. I didn’t study German, but I was a foreign language student so we knew each other. This explains why he felt the need to strike up a conversation with me at six o’clock one morning.
I was about to start working out, and he had just finished. We were both getting dressed in the locker room. It was, to say the least, a little awkward — two grown men shooting the breeze while taking off their clothes.
“You come here often?” he asked. I could have laughed.
“Um, yeah, I guess,” I said, still wiping the crusted pieces of whatever out of my eyes.
“That’s great,” he said. “Just great.”
I nodded, not really paying attention. He had already had his adrenaline shot; I was still waiting for mine. I somehow uttered that a friend and I had been coming to the gym for a few weeks now, about three times a week.
“Great,” Dr. Eisenhautz repeated. He paused as if to reflect on what he would say next. Then, he just blurted it out. The most profound thing I had heard in my life.
“The habits you form here will be with you for the rest of your life.”
Photos by Geoff Heith
My head jerked up, my eyes got big, and I stared at him, letting the words soak into my half-conscious mind. He nodded, said a gruff goodbye, and left. I was dumbfounded.
The words reverberated in my mind for the rest of the day. Years later, they still haunt me. It’s true — the habits you form early in life will, most likely, be with you for the rest of your existence.
I have seen this fact proven repeatedly. My friends who drank a lot in college drink in larger quantities today. Back then, we called it “partying.” Now, it has a less glamorous name: alcoholism. There are other examples. The guys and girls who slept around back then now have babies and unfaithful marriages. Those with no ambition then are still working the same dead end jobs.
“We are what we repeatedly do,” Aristotle once said. While I don’t want to sound all gloom-and-doom, and I believe your life can turn around at any moment, there is an important lesson here: life is a result of intentional habits. So I decided to do the things that were most important to me first, not last.
After graduating college, I joined a band and traveled across North America for nine months. With six of my peers, I performed at schools, churches, and prisons. We even spent a month in Taiwan on our overseas tour. (We were huge in Taiwan.)
As part of our low-cost travel budget, we usually stayed in people’s homes. Over dinner or in conversation later in the evening, it would almost always come up — the statement I dreaded. As we were conversing about life on the road — the challenges of long days, being cooped up in a van, and always being on the move — some well-intentioned adult would say, “It’s great that you’re doing this … while you’re still young.”
Ouch. Those last words — while you’re still young — stung like a squirt of lemon juice in the eye (a sensation with which I am well acquainted). They reeked of vicarious longing and mid-life regret. I hated hearing that phrase.
I wanted to shout back,
“No, this is NOT great while I’m still young! It’s great for the rest of my life! You don’t understand. This is not just a thing I’m doing to kill time. This is my calling! My life! I don’t want what you have. I will always be an adventurer.”
In a year, I will turn thirty. Now I realize how wrong I was. Regardless of the intent of those words, there was wisdom in them.
As we get older, life can just sort of happen to us. Whatever we end up doing, we often end up with more responsibilities, more burdens, more obligations. This is not always bad. In fact, in many cases it is really good. It means you’re influencing people, leaving a legacy.
Youth is a time of total empowerment. You get to do what you want. As you mature and gain new responsibilities, you have to be very intentional about making sure you don’t lose sight of what’s important. The best way to do that is to make investments in your life so that you can have an effect on who you are in your later years.
I did this by traveling. Not for the sake of being a tourist, but to discover the beauty of life — to remember that I am not complete.
There is nothing like riding a bicycle across the Golden Gate Bridge or seeing the Coliseum at sunset. I wish I could paint a picture for you of how incredible the Guatemalan mountains are or what a rush it is to appear on Italian TV. Even the amazing photographs I have of Niagara Falls and the American Midwest countryside do not do these experiences justice. I can’t tell you how beautiful southern Spain is from the vantage point of a train; you have to experience it yourself. The only way you can relate is by seeing them.
While you’re young, you should travel. You should take the time to see the world and taste the fullness of life. Spend an afternoon sitting in front of the Michelangelo. Walk the streets of Paris. Climb Kilimanjaro. Hike the Appalachian trail. See the Great Wall of China. Get your heart broken by the “killing fields” of Cambodia. Swim through the Great Barrier Reef. These are the moments that define the rest of your life; they’re the experiences that stick with you forever.
Traveling will change you like little else can. It will put you in places that will force you to care for issues that are bigger than you. You will begin to understand that the world is both very large and very small. You will have a newfound respect for pain and suffering, having seen that two-thirds of humanity struggle to simply get a meal each day.
While you’re still young, get cultured. Get to know the world and the magnificent people that fill it. The world is a stunning place, full of outstanding works of art. See it.
You won’t always be young. And life won’t always be just about you. So travel, young person. Experience the world for all it’s worth. Become a person of culture, adventure, and compassion. While you still can.
Do not squander this time. You will never have it again. You have a crucial opportunity to invest in the next season of your life now. Whatever you sow, you will eventually reap. The habits you form in this season will stick with you for the rest of your life. So choose those habits wisely.
And if you’re not as young as you’d like (few of us are), travel anyway. It may not be easy or practical, but it’s worth it. Traveling allows you to feel more connected to your fellow human beings in a deep and lasting way, like little else can. In other words, it makes you more human.
That’s what it did for me, anyway.
Photos by Geoff Heith