Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Many Vantage Points on the Transferability of Workplace Skills and Credentials

I spent most of the week of May 12 at the annual symposium of the Work and Learning Knowledge Centre of the Canadian Council on Learning. The next several posts will address what I learned there.

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The Work and Learning Knowledge Centre sponsored a project to compile information about programs that facilitate the transition from school to work. One surprising statistic is that the completion rate for apprenticeships in skilled labor was only about 50 percent. Apparently, during the apprenticeship process, employers make permanent offers to their apprentices, so the apprentices begin work and don’t complete their training program. Sounds good at the time, but in the long-run, that’s kind of short-sighted as the young person now has no transferrable credential.

Transferrable credentials are important because they can be recognized by other employers in an ideal world. This, unfortunately, is not an ideal world and many skilled people with strong credentials can’t get work because the credentials aren’t recognized. Indeed, for many fields, there isn’t even a reciprocity agreement within Canada, meaning that credentials acquired in one province are not recognized in another. If someone moves, they have to essentially restart their career. Having had been in a similar situation, I empathize with them.
Moreover, it kind of makes one wonder if the claim that we don’t have skilled workers is that we really don’t have them, or we just refuse to acknowledge that they have skills.

The good news is that many efforts are underway to develop transferrable credentials. Quebec is developing competencies for many key jobs, with a focus on transferrable competencies. I believe that the intention is that these competencies be certified in some way so employers in other industries might recognize them. (The problem of recognizing credentials isn’t limited across provinces and countries; it also exists between industries. As one of the participants and I observed, a lot of industries like to think that skills needed in their industries are more unique than they really are.)
By the way, Robin Millar’s Centre for Education and Work at the University of Winnipeg put together a great tool for helping individuals recognize their essential work competencies. Available in print and online versions.
In the resulting discussions about these issues with other colleagues, the issue that our society has devalued technical degrees in favor of university degrees seemed to be universally stated. Even though a university degree does not guarantee one a great job (or even one in the field of study) and even though some good-paying, honorable jobs exist in the trades, perception is that a university degree is worth more than a technical degree. That’s said, because the demand and pay are there for these jobs (indeed, in some fields, the pay far exceeds that of some jobs requiring a master’s degree). More significantly, many people are better suited to skilled labor than university study and the jobs it prepares them for. If we encourage young people to marry a person who suits them, why can’t we encourage them into careers that suit them.

(And that works both ways; a person who’s better suited for the types of work that university degrees suit them for should be encouraged into those fields. Indeed, I hope that continues as that’s how I earn my living.)

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