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Who’s Driving? A Response to 4Front Atlantic’s GPS for Atlantic Canada

29 May

Co-authored with Brian Foster

 

What we are all looking for…is the readymade, competent man [sic]; the man whom some one else has trained. It is only when we fully realize that our duty, as well as our opportunity, lies in systematically cooperating to train and to make this competent man, instead of in hunting for a man whom some one else has trained, that we shall be on the road to national efficiency.

Frederick Winslow Taylor, Principles of Scientific Management (1911)

 Once again, the topic of Nova Scotia’s economic future is front-and-centre in the provincial discourse [‘An Economic GPS for Atlantic Canada,’ Opinions, May 25th, 2013]. From the Ivany Commission to the 4Front Atlantic conference, to the Greater Halifax Partnership’s Halifax Index, representatives of business, government and higher education have put their heads together to come up with solutions to our long-lived economic challenges: an ageing population, high youth outmigration (and now unemployment), and slow economic growth compared to the booming economies in some other provinces. They have assumed a common set of goals: we need to attract and retain young workers, especially “recent graduates”; we have to figure out ways to see older people as valuable resources, not liabilities; we have to be “competitive”, “innovative” and “more productive”.

They have arrived, separately, at some common proposals: we need a “friendlier” business environment and streamlining in government processes; we need to figure out ways to get people to start businesses, root them here, and hire Nova Scotians; we need a skilled and willing workforce.

But there’s one thing they’re a little reluctant to say, despite the mounting evidence that it must be said because it is key to our present economic problem: employers here, as elsewhere, either are not willing to invest in worker training to the extent that it is needed, or do not see workplace training as a priority.

And so, among the 4Front conference’s key recommendations is “an educational environment where universities and colleges play a lead role in developing the talent…Canada needs.” In other words, they are doing what businesses have been doing since F.W. Taylor’s time: looking for the “ready-made” worker, trained in a university or college or, better yet, someone else’s business, rather than committing to hire smart, promising young talent and cough up the funds to mold them into the employees they need. As a recent article in MacLean’s [March 15th, 2013] put it, employers, in Nova Scotia and elsewhere, are “outsourcing their workplace training to colleges.”

F.W. Taylor cartoon

F.W. Taylor cartoon

The data we have on this matter is, unfortunately, quite sparse. We do know that Canadian businesses, overall, invest just 1.5% of their payroll in education and training – 50% less than what firms in the US spend. But the latest available provincial data from Statistics Canada is pre-recession. As the Greater Halifax Partnership’s Halifax Index also reports, at that time, 40% of Nova Scotian workers aged 25-64 participated in some form of employer-supported work-related training (Access and Support to Education and Training Survey (ASETS)), which was  above the Canadian average of 36%. But looking deeper, Nova Scotia workers spent less time in such training – just 36 hours per year, compared to the still-low Canadian average of 49.

Beyond this, we know little about what has changed since the recession, who is getting trained – e.g., younger workers vs. older workers – and for what. Some insight can be gained from the Greater Halifax Partnership’s Halifax Index, released last week. The Index revealed that while the employment rate rose in Halifax in 2012, the vast majority of the job gains went to people aged 45 and older, and the employment rate among 15-24-year-olds actually fell. Qualitative evidence from Nova Scotia and other Canadian provinces, moreover, consistently shows that employers are especially risk-averse about training new (usually young) workers; businesses fear that they will train an employee only to have them leave or be “poached” by another company. Perhaps not coincidentally, much of the training offered by Canadian employers relates to things like workplace safety rather than basic job skills that could substantively increase productivity, spur innovation and build the skilled workforce our businesses say they need.

It’s time for Nova Scotia businesses to do more than simply push our education system to create the workers they so desperately want. They must commit, somewhere in their policy recommendations and economic plans, to make a serious investment in the province’s “human capital.” If they truly value training, and need it to fill the “skills gaps” we hear so much about, it’s time for them to do what they supposedly do best and put some skin in the game.

‘Hipster’ is not a real job. Neither is not having a job.

12 Oct

Last week, the CCPA released a report (authored by yours truly) about youth un- and underemployment in Canada. It showed that, while youth unemployment in Canada is not insubstantial – 14.1% in 2011, up from 12.9% in 2006 – it’s still “low” compared to other OECD countries. In Greece, for example, the rate was 44.4% in 2011, and has been pinned more recently at 55%.  In Spain, it’s 54%; in Italy, 35%.

There’s no doubt that 1 in 7 young people unemployed is better than 1 in 2 or 1 in 3.

But it’s not great. As I argued in the paper, and as Carol Goar underscores in the Toronto Star today, the rates of tenuous employment (i.e., part-time, temporary) are on the rise among young people in Canada, and at a faster pace than among older workers.

The full paper is available here, but in brief, it shows that the rate of temporary, contract and term employment among workers under 30 has nearly doubled, from 6.9% in 1997 to 11.6% in 2011. For workers aged 30 and over, the rise has been less dramatic – from 4.0% to 5.7%.

When you break these figures down further, you see that education level plays a role. While young workers without a PSE degree were more likely to be unemployed or not in the labour force (likely because they’re still in school), those who do have a post-secondary degree are more likely to in short-term employment: 1 in 5 were working non-permanent jobs in 2011 – and half of them were part-timers.

This matters because non-permanent and part-time jobs tend to be lower paid (by virtue of working fewer hours and because the pay scales are usually different than full-time, permanent ones) and they usually lack access to employer-provided benefits. Moreover, spells in nonstandard work or unemployment have been shown to have long-lasting effects. (See chapter 7 in this book; or check out this article – sorry about the paywall.)

It also matters on a macro-economic scale, above and beyond the immediate earnings and well-being of individuals, because people who don’t make much money don’t spend much money, and then we’re all screwed.

Yet, as Carol Goar notes, there has yet to be any action on youth unemployment. I even got an email from a policy researcher with one of the federal political parties saying he was glad to see my report and distressed by the lack of action on the problem. Save for a few snarky and ill-advised ads by the BC government – which, as Andrew Langille over at Youth and Work notes, cost them over $600,000 – everyone thinks youth unemployment is a problem, but no one’s moving on it.

Zi-Ann Lum/The Huffington Post B.C.

Like Goar, I’m wondering why.

I have some theories. First, we think of youth itself as temporary. Even when it’s expanding or contracting or taking too long or going away too quickly, it’s still a phase of life we all grow out of.

Authorities of all stripes use this ‘fact’ when it’s convenient – like when they assure us young workers will ‘recover’ because they’re ‘resilient’, or when they simply wait out popular movements in the hopes that they’ll die when their instigators grow up – and ignore it just as often, when it’s time for a moral panic about whatever young people are wearing, watching, listening to or engaging in.

In the case of youth unemployment, we’re seeing a paradoxical (but quite logical, from a governmentality perspective) mix of abject terror over the threat of idle youth in Europe on the one hand, and the patronizing downplaying of rising youth unemployment here at home.  Those competing mentalities might have something to do with the all-out paralysis when it comes to policy development and action.

The federal government – aside from the NDP, whose benches are lined with twenty-somethings, and few of them ‘legacy’ politicians – are also just plain out of touch with young peoples’ lives, issues, potentials, concerns, challenges and desires. In their world, Justin Trudeau is the touchstone for youth (at forty!!!), and “youth” is synonymous with “student.”

The latter point might be another reason why nobody’s doing anything about youth unemployment: the base youth unemployment rate doesn’t distinguish between high school students, college and university students, graduate students and non-students – so we don’t know how worried we should be. Are these young workers looking for employment? Are they actually available to work? Are they still living with their parents? Do they have families to support? The easy way out of all of these hard questions is to assume that the vast majority are students whose primary interest isn’t paid employment anyway.

More generally, the political economic climate of our time doesn’t allow for government-driven solutions. We’re tinkering with tiny taxation issues and putting up stimulus spending billboards waiting for the invisible hand to swoop down and… I don’t know… tickle Canadian businesses until they give in and invest more of their lazy money in our economy?

Yet the answer might not be to copy the solutions of the past. Reviving the Keynesian welfare state is nearly as ghoulish as channeling Reagan and Thatcher. The Keynesian model of yesterday was good for yesterday’s worker: a white man, supporting a family. It depended on a supply of low-wage labour from the Global South. In short, it worked for a world that was wildly out of balance, but it needed that imbalance to work.

That’s not to say there’s no room for Keynesian ideas in the days ahead, but that nostalgia for the exclusionary welfare state of days gone by is a form of economic hipsterism worth of a few ill-advised ads of its own.

We are one of the most highly educated countries in the world, and our economy isn’t totally in the shitter yet. Why can’t we figure out ways to put young people to work in decent, well-paid, productive jobs? If the problem of the next decade is skilled labour shortages – although this is debatable – why aren’t we attracting young people to the right programs, with free tuition or generous bursaries, to fill them? Why aren’t we investing in apprenticeship programs to employ young workers while training them in the skills the economy needs, like the OECD recommends? Why aren’t we killing two birds with one stone by putting young people to work on pressing public issues – why, for example, can’t we employ young workers on projects that address the need for better public transit in many major urban centres, cleaning lakes and rivers under threat of destruction, re-settling rural communities that are now in decline, or developing and implementing a national childcare strategy?

The circumstances were different in Greece, Spain and Italy before half of their young workers became unemployed. But they didn’t get there overnight. If Canada waits too long, its young people aren’t just going to grow up. They’re going to grow angry.

Let’s not get carried away with Helicopter Parents

5 Sep

University and college classes start today for one of the most cash-strapped, debt-burdened, under-employed cohorts of post-secondary students this country has ever seen.[1] But that’s not the story.

Instead, on the radio, in the newspaper, online and among many university instructors, the focus is on “entitled” students, “coddled” first-years, and “helicopter parents.”

I’m especially ashamed that these discussions are happening in the halls of academe because they rest on stereotypes, and as academics, particularly in the social sciences and humanities, our job is to look deeper. We are trained to challenge stereotypes, to critically reflect on the taken-for-granted bits of cultural discourses, and to ‘make the familiar strange’ by destabilizing the seemingly unassailable categories and characters that populate our worldviews.

We’re supposed to recognize that how we see and interpret the world depends on how we’re embedded in it – where we fall in the complex web of intersecting identities, class positions, racialization, power and gender relations, historico-political and economic conditions – we know this.

And yet we accept on faith the notion that students today are entitled – more entitled than we ever were – about their education. We claim, based on our experiences with one or two students out of hundreds, that they generally think they should get an A for just showing up, or not showing up, for writing ten pages of nonsense, or for writing no pages at all.

We roll our eyes and jab at the meddling parents who call their children’s professors when things go awry, who move in to residence to help their offspring settle in during the first week, and who talk to their sons and daughters every night on the phone before bed. Although we’ve only dealt with one or two personally, we spread the word that these helicopter parents are everywhere: coddling their baby grown-ups, hovering just overhead, and swooping in to fend off bad marks, rejected applications and punishment for bad decisions. Everyone has a story about these parents and ‘kids.’

I mean a story – it seems that one single encounter (one’s own or someone else’s) with an overbearing parent is enough to conclude that helicopter parents and entitled students are the defining features of our contemporary post-secondary landscape.

We should know better.

If we’re good old-fashioned empiricist ‘numbers people’, we should be asking how many parents have actually called a son’s or daughter’s professor. It just so happens such research already exists, and it suggests that the helicopter parents phenomenon is both overstated and misunderstood. We should be doing more research and collecting data on how students really view their post-secondary education. Do they think they’re ‘entitled’ to good marks or a certain level of ‘service’ from their professors? How are such expectations formed? Do they evolve over the course of a four-year degree? And how much have students’ expectations really changed, holding everything else constant, over the last few decades? After all, there’s research from 1986 complaining about student entitlement (among med students, no less). How different is today’s ‘entitlement’ from the ‘narcissism’ we worried about in the 1970s?

Even if there have been changes, we need to ask why, and we need to widen our focus to include changes at the level of society, politics, the economy and culture. (We find it easy to point to technological changes and their impact on behaviour – the Internet, for example, is often blamed for a perceived cultural shift toward instant gratification – it’s shouldn’t be that much of a stretch to imagine the impacts of changing employment relations, stagnating wages, increased university enrolment and changing family forms.)

For example, in a short radio segment about helicopter parents this morning, CBC reported that parents today are likely to be involved in filling out university applications and choosing a post-secondary school for their children. Universities are even holding orientation sessions for parents. The undertone of this report was that parents are getting nosier and kids are increasingly unable to make decisions without mommy and daddy. The assumption is that high school graduates in the 1960s and 70s were more adept at navigating the maze of post-secondary enrolment. But we ought to consider what the maze looked like back then. Maybe it was a little less complex. Maybe you were more likely to just go to the institution your Dad went to, or the one in your hometown, or the only one that offered the program you wanted to enroll in. Maybe you made the decisions alone because they were easier, and because we hadn’t yet entered our present age of uncertainty, individual responsibility and risk — where neoliberal policies download the costs of education and other public goods to increasingly smaller communities and individuals, where statistics show that the standard employment relationship is slowly ceding way to short-term employment with less job security, where ‘risk‘ is a pervasive discourse used for understanding everything from diseases to crime to drug use to insurance, investments, business and economic development.

All of this is to say that we should see the anecdotal evidence we have as a reason to ask more questions, not an answer. At most, we can take it as evidence of powerful discourses and ideas, and this is interesting on its own. It tells us that we’re hungry for stereotypes, especially when it comes to ‘generational’ differences. It suggests we want an easy lens through which to view social and cultural change – all the better if it pushes politics and economics to the background. Even better, moreover, if it makes us (the older, less entitled ‘generation’) look stronger, more sensible and more virtuous in the process.


[1] Across Canada, according to the latest numbers available from Statistics Canada CANSIM tables, student unemployment sat at 14% in 2011. (Note that the ‘unemployed’ include only those who are looking for work – many more are counted as ‘not in the labour force.’) The average cost for an undergraduate degree for students who leave the parental home is $80,000, and being unemployed means more of that is debt. In fact, the average student graduates with upwards of $27,000 of debt, and all that debt takes, on average, 14 years to pay off. See here and here for more.

How to Eliminate Tuition Fees (and do it right)

9 Jun

Quebec student group CLASSE has come forward with an offer of what it would take to end their almost four-month strike: the elimination of tuition fees by 2016. The plan is based on taxing banks, starting at 0.14 per cent per cent this year, and rising to 0.7 per cent over the next four.

According to CLASSE’s calculations, the tax would net $400M per year – enough to fund a tuition-fee-free post-secondary system.

Of course, this proposal has media outlets like The Sun and the National Post ‘setting their hair on fire’, as my friend Erika Shaker would say. Already, we have the usual erudite reactions from internet trolls and their startling real-life manifestations. Over the next few days, we will surely (?) begin to see more semi-researched arguments that come within ten feet of a fact.

Despite what we’ve heard and will continue to hear from the knotted-knickers crowd, eliminating tuition fees is not a pie-in-the-sky idea. It’s radical, yes – radical is context-dependent – but it’s not unachievable. It’s utopian, and idealist, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also practical and pragmatic. These things sometimes, indeed often, go together. We urge our children and each other, ‘follow your dreams,’ ‘be the change you want to see in the world,’ and to grab life by whatever of its body parts are within grasp. But when it comes to collective dreams, we’re a little more reserved.

Here I want to propose that eliminating tuition fees is a viable option, and it’s worth going for – but it isn’t, in itself, a panacea. It has to be combined with other policy changes and considerations in order for it to truly contribute to the leveling aims universal higher education is meant to achieve.

First, on the viable option bit. There are now twenty OECD countries that charge zero or only nominal tuition fees to citizens. Some of these countries, like Greece, are struggling – but so is the US, and so is Canada, and so is the UK, and many other places that have begun to eat themselves alive now that neoliberal economic policies have failed to deliver on their promises of booming, invisible-hand-driven markets. None of these places got where they are by offering too much to their citizens.

Other countries that fund university through taxes boast thriving economies: Argentina and Sri Lanka, for example, were among the top ten fastest growing economies in 2011. The GDP of Sweden, Mauritius, Morocco, Kenya and Peru grew faster than the world average that year, while Brazil, Malta, Germany and Finland beat Canada, the UK and the US handily. There may not be a hard and fast relationship between how university is funded and a country’s economic performance, but that just adds to the argument for the elimination of tuition fees.

In Canada, we have numerous ways to collectivize and subsidize the costs for post-secondary education for everyone. CLASSE’s proposal is interesting because it places the burden on banks (perhaps they watched this tiny person’s presentation) – you know, the same banks whose representatives circle like vultures, in the subway stations students tend to pass through on their commutes, or in the Student Union Buildings of nearly every major university, offering free swag to any broke chump who’ll sign on the dotted line (a practice which, for the record, should be banned).

If taxing the banks is rejected in our wealth-sycophant public forum – which it will be, because banks will, oh, I don’t know, pick up and move operations, restrict spending, raise interest rates and user fees, or whatever else we allow major economic players to get away with in the name of ‘fairness’ and the free market – there are alternative ways to fund an education system.

Some of the countries listed earlier just take university funding out of their considerable tax coffers. In Canada, we’d have to raise taxes (or redirect money away from the F-35s and other pet projects of the overgrown schoolboys we call Conservative Government Ministers) to be able to earmark the necessary funds for a publicly-funded university system. But not by much: for example, a 2011 report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives calculated that if every family in Ontario paid a tax of $170 per year, we could fund the university education of every aspirant student in the province.

But while the publicly-funded university is economically viable, it does present some real problems for those of us who see it as a democratizing, leveling social good. For one, ‘free’ university (and it isn’t free, it’s collectivized, and there’s a difference, and we KNOW THIS ALREADY, GEORGE JONAS!) tends to benefit mainly the middle class who would find some way to afford it anyway. There are cultural, historical reasons for the demographic makeup of universities, and eliminating fees won’t open the floodgates to poor, rural, or minority students in any huge or immediate way. There need to be policies in place to ensure that students who are underrepresented in universities and colleges are able to take advantage of tuition-free post-secondary education, and we need to ensure that, to the extent possible, our pedagogical instruments, course content and cultures are welcoming to diverse students, and not just the best and the brightest middle class students from other countries.

Related to this is the downside of funding universities through individual income taxes: if it is predominantly the middle and upper classes who benefit from tuition-free post-secondary education, and yet the tax is applied universally in an only somewhat progressive tax scheme, the funding model amounts to redistributing income from the lowest economic quintiles to the highest – and we already have enough of that going on, thank-you-very-much. A shift in tax policy could mitigate these effects, but so could the CLASSE model.

The latter is especially compelling because it sidesteps the problem of some of ‘us’ subsidizing the ‘others’ individually – something we seem to be really uncomfortable with, judging by our (apparent, unproven) contempt for taxes.

But it doesn’t evade another, somewhat justified point of resistance to the elimination of tuition fees: that of the loafers who will surely take advantage of a tuition-free spot in a university classroom without putting in the work necessary to succeed, without learning anything, without ever giving society a return on its investment. On the one hand, this critique smacks of similar ones made of public healthcare – that ‘we’ shouldn’t have to subsidize the medical treatment of people who eat junk, smoke cigarettes, drink too much alcohol, take risks in their leisure pursuits, etc. It’s similar also to the anti-union rhetoric that comes from grudging union members and former members – that seniority systems allow people with no work ethic to languish at the top while hardworking folks hit the seniority ceiling early. To these arguments, I usually say ‘one bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch, girl.’

But here, I’ll admit that, particularly in a society where there is so much pressure for high-school students to apply to and enroll in university, there’s a real risk of deadweight. It’s already happening in cases where well-intentioned parents support their kids in university when the kids aren’t ready, or don’t want to go, or don’t know why they’re there. It’s definitely an issue with varsity athletes on sports scholarships – I can’t tell you how often I hear of the student who “has to” maintain a certain average (i.e., as a professor, you “have to” give them this average) in order to keep his or her athletic scholarship.

Thus, there’s a good argument to be made for students needing to maintain a certain GPA, and maybe even some volunteer work or short placements in industries with labour shortages (or, for some folks, military service, which ain’t my thing), and even incentives to move to or stay in rural or Northern areas which struggle to attract recent graduates. In other words, there’s room to make students ‘pay’ for their tuition-free education in other ways – ways which may actually strengthen the social fabric and the economy rather than burdening students with exorbitant debt and stifling their much-needed spending for years to come.

Finally, the case for eliminating tuition fees often revolves around the university specifically, leaving out technical institutions, vocational schools, community colleges. This is especially a problem given the present mismatch between skilled labour supply and demand in Canada. In short, from the problematic but entrenched view of universities as strictly job-training apparatuses and not civic institutions that produce thoughtful, critical subjects, there are too many people enrolled in and graduating from them. This is evident, first, in unemployment rates of recent grads. In 2011, 7.4% of people aged 30 and under with a university undergraduate degree were unemployed, compared to just 3.8% of those over thirty with the same level of education. Only 48.1% of 30-and-unders with university degrees had full-time, permanent jobs, compared to 57% of older university graduates (and this includes the downward pull of retirement-age people in that category). For 30-and-unders with post-graduate degrees (PhD and professional schools, for example), the unemployment rate was 6%, only 41.5% had full-time, permanent gigs, a whopping 18% were working full-time, temporary or contract jobs (a 6% increase since 2001), and a further 16% had part-time jobs (8% of them short-term contracts). The picture for older post-graduate degree-holders was better, with only 4% unemployed, 56% in full-time, permanent jobs, 6% in full-time temporary jobs, and 7% in part-time jobs. (All of these figures are unpublished data from the 2011 LFS, author’s calculations.)

Meanwhile, we know we have skilled labour shortages in many areas. Anecdotal reports from employers suggest we need more professional truck drivers, more mining and geological professionals, and more engineering, science and technology graduates. Last year, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce predicted shortfalls of “163,000 in construction, 130,000 in oil and gas, 60,000 in nursing, 37,000 in trucking, 22,000 in the hotel industry and 10,000 in the steel trades” over the next decade.

While Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister, Margaret Wente, would prefer to simply chastise people who opt for English degrees when there are skills shortages in other areas, what we need is a national strategy that connects people with jobs while they are still at the point of choosing what to do with their lives, career-wise. We need incentives, not disincentives. We don’t need weird tweaks to EI that push out-of-work lobster fishermen to try their hands at telemarketing. We need to think long-term, not only about the spots that need filled, but the people who are going to need spots.

We can’t remove the financial barriers to university without also removing barriers, and perhaps increasing incentives, to the programs that will produce graduates with the skills we need for a booming economy. These aims can also foster a fairer, more leveling economy. But it can’t be a piecemeal approach.

Proposals for eliminating tuition aren’t simply idealistic or utopian; they are the definition of pragmatic and utilitarian. The latter terms are often used to ferry in austerity measures and justify harsh cuts to social programs – they’re often abused, particularly in the liberal media and conservative political rhetoric. But their philosophical meaning revolves around the good, and the greatest good for the greatest number of people. So let’s be pragmatic. Let’s be utilitarian. Let’s eliminate tuition fees, but let’s do it right.

Special thanks to Rollen Lee, Andrew Riddles and David Tough for the Facebook conversation that spurred and helped this post.

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