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Education as the great divide



Business Council of B.C.

Where do workers envision themselves five years from now? Who has the skills to succeed in the fast-changing job market? The answer—and the level of optimism—may very well depend on the amount and type of education attained.

Jock Finlayson

How workers view their careers and whether they believe they can “make it” in a digital world whittles down to one main factor: education. A recent US survey reveals that education, not household income or geography, represents the “great divide” between workers who are optimistic about their prospects and those who hold a gloomier view.

Who is (and is not) Looking Forward to Change
Research by the American polling firm PSB finds that an individual’s education level influences their view of technology and its likely impact on their economic standing going forward. Most survey respondents with post-secondary education were positive about the future, while many with only a high-school qualification or less were not.

Moreover, barely four in ten Americans with high school or less say they have the right skills to thrive in the digital economy. In contrast, seven of ten university-educated respondents are confident they possess the right skills. Fully one-third of those with a high school diploma or less believe they could lose their jobs in the next five years—with one in five fearful of being displaced by a machine.

Less Than Linear Modern Realities
It is not hard to understand why workers with meager credentials are uneasy. The US and Canada are moving to a two-tiered economy, with widening gaps between high and low-skilled work coupled with downward pressure on the demand for labour in a growing number of “middle-skill” occupations. A large segment of the labour force lacks the skills that employers seek.

On top of this, full-time employment with decent pay and benefits is becoming harder to secure amid the rise of the gig economy and the proliferation of contract work. Even if full-time employment is obtained, it may not guarantee upward mobility. Real wages have been relatively flat for workers without in-demand skills, even as the cost of living creeps higher. The classic linear career path and life achievement timeline—go to school, secure a credential, get a job, buy a house, have a family—is less feasible for many Millennials, reflecting broader shifts in the economy.

Two-tiered Economic Futures
The near-term future looks set to bring a convergence of deeper income equality and accelerating technological change. In the context of the labour market, trends in the demand for and supply of skills and education are fostering a sharp divide between the haves and have-nots. But, as the US survey suggests, those with the credentials and talents to adapt feel themselves to be well-positioned. Over half of university-educated respondents believe that developments in technology will make employment opportunities better. Many of these people also see job growth being concentrated in high tech, health care, and “green” energy technologies—fields that require higher education and skills.

However, labour market projections point to a more complex picture. While employment growth will be brisk in many high-skill occupations, there will also be plenty of openings in lower-skilled jobs, across a range of industry sectors. In fact, according to US government forecasts, the occupations expected to have the largest numbers of vacancies over the next several years include personal and home health aides; cooks, food preparers and servers; nursing assistants; retail salespersons and customer service representatives; construction labourers; and janitors and cleaners. None of these require college or university qualifications.

Education Benefits All Parties
Business leaders understand the value of an educated and flexible workforce. An inclusive, robust society creates a more favourable environment for doing business – and for innovation. The private sector has a stake in “upskilling” the workforce. Companies benefit from having a qualified talent pool from which to draw.

In Canada, employers need to play a bigger role in educating and training employees. Workers will benefit from better access to systems of lifelong learning and short-term training – provided by employers in-house, in partnership with post-secondary institutions, or via existing and re-tooled apprenticeship programs. In preparing the Canadian workforce for the digital economy, education should not be the source of the great divide, but rather a bridge that connects more citizens to success.

Jock Finlayson is executive vice-president and chief policy officer, and Kristin St-Laurent is a policy analyst, with the Business Council of BC.

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