By Gavin Moodie

The FutureSkills Lab would be ‘a national non-governmental organization to operate as a laboratory for skills development and measurement in Canada’ as it is proposed in a recent report by the federal government’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth.

Screen Shot 2017-03-18 at 12.48.41 PMThe government established its Advisory Council under Finance Minister Bill Morneau to prepare for the future of Canada’s economy. The Government is concerned about the fate of workers challenged by different ways of organizing work and the introduction of new technologies, particularly automation.

The Council released its second set of reports in February this year, this time on innovation, a FutureSkills Lab, identifying 6 to 8 sectors in which to promote growth, positioning Canada as a global trading hub, and increasing the participation of groups currently under represented in the workforce.

The Council argues that a FutureSkills Lab is needed to protect workers against the risk of (technological) change, provide the economy with new (technological) skills it needs, and to broaden workforce participation. A FutureSkills Lab would:

  • support innovative skills development;
  • identify and suggest new sources of skills information;
    • gather labour market signals of skill needs;
    • identify innovative ways of linking credentials to competencies;
  • define skills objectives and inform governments on skills programming;
    • determine a set of skills objectives;
    • rigorously measure outcomes; and
    • identify and disseminate best practices

This is needed because as the Council notes Canadian employers, like those in the USA, the UK and elsewhere, have cut their annual investment in workforce training by over 40% in the past 20 years. The Council argues that this needs to be done by a federal body because:

Unlike education, which is under provincial and territorial jurisdiction, skills must involve all levels of government as well as the private sector, labour unions, industry associations, and other stakeholders to ensure Canada has a robust and forward-looking strategy. Achieving what needs to be done in the skills space would be challenging to do within the current framework of support and institutions. An independent pan-Canadian center of excellence like the one we propose is a vital cog in the machinery of skill analysis and development.

The FutureSkills Lab intensifies the focus of education on developing students as elements of human economic capital, which may be expected of an advisory council on economic growth reporting to a finance ministry. But why is it preoccupied with ‘skills’ rather than with college, vocational, occupational or technical education? And why does the Council contrast ‘skills’ with ‘education’?

The Council is proposing to support an atomisation of workers into ‘employee skill sets and competencies’ which is a short step to further fragmenting work into short term and narrow jobs. In such jobs, economic uncertainty is further transferred to workers and more of the costs of preparing for those jobs is transferred to students and the public.

It poses educationalists with a difficult policy and pragmatic issue. There is clearly a social need which education may fill. But the destination suggested by the Advisory Council’s proposal is micro credentialing or awarding digital badges as they are commonly known. It risks making at least parts of education more specific in time, place and orientation to meet employers’ immediate needs, which erodes the broader and longer benefits that the best education offers.

One response would be to just resist and hopefully reverse the atomisation and degradation of work and its preparation entailed by basing policy on ‘employee skill sets and competencies’. But the better approach is to develop a program for responding to perceived needs and government priorities in ways which are likely to strengthen occupations and their preparation.

This may mean developing forms of more occupationally oriented college education which do not undermine colleges’ strengths as institutions. For Ontario, it may mean revisiting and adapting for the future the province’s initial conception of its colleges as Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology.