I was reading through some of the recent labour force jobs data that recently made the rounds and I can’t helping asking myself why so many of us keeping thumbing our nose at skilled labour positions – and even worse, why we seem so determined to pass this attitude on to the next generation. As many of you have probably figured out by now, I work in the public school sector and I can say from with a fair degree of certainty that we are not providing students with an accurate portrayal of the current jobs market, and even worse, we are subconsciously biasing our students against the very education they need!
Parents Always Know Best – Except When They Don’t
From what I can tell, this systemic failure is due to a few main factors. The first factor is that the parents of today’s high school students experienced a much different workforce when they were 18 than the one that exists today; therefore, teachers who do not want to clash with parents’ beliefs find it easiest to simply back the university-at-all costs approach that is so prevalent. Thirty years ago if you received a bachelor’s degree from university you were probably pretty set. Even if you studied subjects and knowledge that there wasn’t a particular demand for, that degree shined brightly on your resume and you could start climbing the career ladder somewhere. This is simply not the case anymore, despite what you were probably told. Check out the comments section of any online newspaper column about unemployment rates and the value of Bachelor of Arts degrees.
Look How Smart We Are
Teachers are intrinsically biased against skilled labour when you think about it. The majority of teachers across Canada were in school for at least five or six years thanks to our new dual degree system for producing educators. Inevitably during those years we pick up a little bit of the elitism that goes with reading a couple dozen textbooks and talking to professors in tweed jackets a lot. When you combine this with the fact that many teachers over 40 are in the same boat as our aforementioned parents, there is still a huge distortion between the perceived labour market and the reality our 18-year olds step into. There is also a self-interest bias in holding up the knowledge that we have as elite, often at the expense (again, probably not consciously) of other career paths out there.
Finally, there is still this ridiculous notion out there that “book knowledge” or extensive knowledge about what a triad consists of, how neo-liberalism has impacted today’s world, or what a comma splice is, is somehow superior to the knowledge needed for skilled labour. Listen, I feel like a moron when standing next to people who understand not only the principles of what make combustion engines work, but also have unique problem-solving knowledge in how to make them function efficiently continuously time and again. I can’t imagine learning how to produce different type of welds at all different angles, with different metals, and a wide variety of environments. I don’t have the slightest clue as to how to plan out electrical circuits in a house, or how to go about installing a geothermal heating system that is meant to last for years without much maintenance at all.
The Invisible Hand Reveals All
I think it is safe to say that both sets of knowledge are very valuable in their own way and that the world has need for both of them. The great thing about the free market is that we can tell pretty accurately exactly how much demand there is for each type of knowledge. This doesn’t mean that one is more important than the other, it simply means that many different types of knowledge are important and some are needed more than others in the current labour environment. The end result of these facts is our current labour predicament in Canada. We have one of the highest rates of post-secondary education in the world, yet lack a huge amount of skilled labour employees. If this situation is going to change we must address our institutional biases and do a better job of encouraging people (boys AND girls by the way) to enter into fields that need it. It shouldn’t be that hard to do. I’m fairly certain all we need to do is show them the two-week paycheques skilled labourers get all over Western Canada, and explain that it takes all kinds of knowledge to make the world (and more specifically our economy) go around.