Categorized | Education

Young grads need to brush up on 3 R’s, employers say

Posted on 25 February 2016 by admin

Executives in surveys said they want to hire people with “essential skills” — communicating, problem-solving, critical thinking, teamwork — yet this is where they see students being deficient.

It’s a familiar corporate rant: Young grads today can’t write worth beans, are weak in math and lack the analytical chops to work their way through the problems we’ll need them to solve.

Executives in 20 recent employer surveys said they look to hire people with so-called “soft” or “essential skills” — communicating, problem-solving, critical thinking, teamwork — “yet this is where they see students being deficient,” said Harvey Weingarten, president of Ontario’s higher education think-tank.

If these skills are so important, it’s time to actually test students for them when they enter university or college, and again when they leave, said Weingarten, whose Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) advises Queen’s Park on higher learning.

In a groundbreaking pilot project this fall — the first of its kind in Canada — HEQCO is looking for several colleges and universities to submit their incoming students to a 90-minute online test of literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills, and give the same test to the graduating class as they leave.

It won’t be required to get in or to graduate, but results of the globally recognized Education and Skills Online assessment from the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development “will show quite simply whether students have these skills or not,” said Weingarten.

If the tool proves useful enough for Queen’s Park to want to have all institutions use it in future, Ontario would become the first jurisdiction in North America to give entrance and exit exams in the 3 R’s to all post-secondary students.

“We don’t want to test because we’re interested in ranking institutions. But students spend time and money on post-secondary education, and the public invests in it, so we need to know if students are acquiring the skills that are going to serve them well,” said Weingarten, former president of the University of Calgary. “If we’re not doing as well as we’d like, then we need to do a better job.”

It’s not clear who’s to blame for the shortfall in these basics. Some accuse schools of dropping their standards. Others point to a distracted screen-crazed culture. Still others suggest helicopter parents kept a generation from learning how to solve problems themselves.

Whatever the cause, the complaints are common.

“A significant minority of students are graduating from post-secondary education with a shortfall of the skills they need — in core literacy and numeracy and problem-solving,” said Michael Bloom, the Conference Board of Canada’s vice-president of industry and strategy. “And if they have trouble using language and numbers, they’ll have trouble operating in real time at the level they should.”

Still, many universities and colleges think things are fine.

A landmark 2015 study called Youth In Transition: Bridging Canada’s Path from Education to Employment, showed a staggering 83 per cent of educational institutions believe their grads are equipped for the workforce, whereas a mere 34 per cent of employers agreed, and just 44 per cent of students themselves.

“You won’t find a college or university administrator who doesn’t claim ‘We enhance these (soft) skills’ but the story gets kind of lame if you don’t have any evidence,” said Greg Moran, HEQCO’s director of special projects and former provost at Western University. “You can wave your hands and cite anecdotes (about how great your students are) but if these are the skills universities are looking for, people are going to want us to be able to demonstrate it.”

The conference Board’s Michael Bloom said the idea of entrance and exit tests of literacy, numeracy and problem-solving has value.

“Sampling students at the front end would be useful to give us an idea of the state of people coming in, and offer immediate, focused help to get the student up to standard,” said Bloom. “It also would give professors a greater consciousness about the importance of these transferable skills, and students could use it at the end of their degree to show employers the skills they have.”

David Lindsay, president of the Council of Ontario Universities, said assessing soft skills could be useful but warns against using one test as a be-all and end-all.

“You have to be clear about what you mean by being ‘prepared for the workplace.’ A forestry graduate might not have learned about drone technology in school, but does that mean they’re not prepared for a job in the sector, which now uses drones to check forest fires and insects and floods? Or do you want a graduate with the cognitive skills to figure that out on the job?”

Community colleges don’t oppose the idea of testing for essential skills, said Linda Franklin, president of Colleges Ontario, because “employers have had concerns about these skills for a long time, so if we have that data, there may be things we can do to improve.”

Even students welcome a yardstick that would show which universities do a good job of teasing out these skills, said Spencer Nestico-Semianiw, president of the Ontario Undergraduate Students’ Alliance.

“Students say they don’t always see an emphasis on those skills of teamwork, communication, confidence, critical thinking, so if we can have something that communicates this to employers — that would help.”

Said Weingarten: “Universities and colleges boast that their grads are great thinkers, great researchers — but I know a lot of people who think that’s not true. And I know a lot of people who think it is true. I don’t actually know what’s true, but I do know how to find out, and that’s to measure.”

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