THE BLOG
05/20/2014 12:05 pm ET Updated Jul 20, 2014

Cutting Back on Liberal Arts and Sciences in Canada Harms Its Economy

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A dangerous and growing urban myth in Canada is that university students enrolled in liberal arts and science programs are acquiring skills employers don't need. This is bogus.

The most recent myth apparition is the BC government's plan to re-engineer the education system to focus on skills and the immediate demands of labor markets. "We celebrate the poets," said BC Education Minister Peter Fassbender witheringly. "We also celebrate the welders, the carpenters and the pipefitters."

Primary and secondary students will have more "hands-on learning," and post-secondary funding will be re-directed towards practical professions. Similar moves are happening across the country.

This is profoundly misguided for two reasons. First, the purpose of education is not only to train workers. Considering challenges such as climate change, economic turmoil and international conflict, we need workers who are also knowledgeable citizens.

Canada wants its citizens to be critical thinkers and innovators, to have a passion not just for their professions but for being good parents, community builders, global participants and for effectively choosing, challenging and engaging their governments.

Moreover, brains need constant development. In yesterday's economy, workers lives divided into a period of when they learned followed by the time they worked. They went to school or university and learned a competency, trade or profession. They were set for life. No more. Learning is now continuous. A career is now similar to a milk carton that has a time stamp on it. If it is not constantly reinvented, like milk, it will quickly go sour.

The second mistake is thinking employers no longer need recruits with a well-rounded, university education. Yes, we need to encourage the trades, and higher education is not for everyone.

However, increasingly Canada has an innovation-based, knowledge economy that relies on brain not brawn.

It's true that it creates much wealth through resource extraction and manufacturing, but a growing number of these jobs require higher education. In resource-based Alberta, 40 percent of new jobs require university credentials and another 26 percent require college. That adds up to a whopping two-thirds of all new jobs.

But the country wants to be more than just hewers of wood and drawers of oil. We need large and small companies that can innovate and compete globally. The private and public sectors require a work force that can think critically, solve problems, and have big-picture awareness.

One of Canada's biggest manufacturing companies is the $8 billion Toronto-based Celestica. More than 50 percent of its Canadian plant employees have a college diploma, and 40 percent have a university degree.

Critics assert that students that have more practical training find better jobs than those with a well-rounded education. Apparently there is a glut of liberal arts students and science graduates flipping burgers.

But there is no such glut. Employment rates for grads from both colleges and universities today are exactly the same as they were in 2007. University and college have about the same chance of getting a relevant job. And salaries have risen for both at the same rate.

The so-called economy-wide "skills gap" does not exist. There may be short-term mismatches in some locations. But a TD Canada Trust survey found there has been no change in recent years of firms reporting difficulty finding skilled employees. The country has an oversupply of skills, not a shortage. There are two million unemployed and underemployed vs. 200,000 job vacancies.

Even the trades increasingly require higher education. Auto mechanics are swapping wrenches for a mouse. The car is becoming a bunch of computers connected to networks. Increasingly cars are diagnosed through technology and fixed by installing new software.

Yes we need "STEM" (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) graduates. But what we really need is "STEAM" adding in an A for Arts. Perhaps web developers and programmer should have some English, psychology, ethics, or business courses. Or every English or history student should know how to program a computer, build a web site, or understand biology.

The only skill most young people are short on is experience. The real problem in Canada is the lack of a persistent demand for labor. Our chronic youth unemployment rate is well over 15 percent. Any discussion of a skills gap effectively blames the students, their families and workers for the problem of unemployment. This is not a problem of skills; it's a problem of public policy.

The route to job creation is encouraging entrepreneurship. Fully 80 percent of new jobs come from companies that are 5 years old or less.

Schools and universities should nurture entrepreneurs. Ryerson University President Sheldon Levy wants one-fifth of Ryerson students to graduate with a company -- not a business plan but an actual incubated company. This would help students learn how to think, problem solve, collaborate, understand the big picture, convince investors, motivate employees, write and communicate.

So it's wrong to shift to more practical trades or technical colleges versus universities. Both are needed. OECD data ranks Canada number one in the world in college graduation, but rank a poor 15th in university degree attainment. We should be finding additional resources to strengthen universities if we want to compete.

A version of this originally appeared in the Toronto Star

Don Tapscott is an adjunct professor at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto and the Chancellor of Trent University. His most recent book is Macrowikinomics: New Solutions for a Connected Planet.