Regional Needs for Engineers: Matching Labour Supply to Demand

A growing number of studies and opinions expressed publicly in recent years point to the necessity of matching Canadian post-secondary education programs with labour market needs. While some coordination efforts may already happen at a local or regional level, no national mechanisms are in place to ensure that the type and number of university specializations are correlated with labour demand.

Recent data on labour shortages and surpluses suggest there continues to be a significant mismatch between the structure and needs of the job market, on the one hand, and the available work force, on the other. CIBC World Markets Inc. deputy chief economist Benjamin Tal suggested in an analysis of Canada’s labour market that “at least three in 10 businesses say they face a skilled labour shortage […] That number is double the rate of early 2010. [In the meantime] a quarter of a million Canadians have been unemployed for more than six months.”

Besides bringing in new immigrants to fill positions in sectors where there are job vacancies, educational programs could also help rebalance the existing labour market mismatch. To do so however, a national education strategy is required – this would help not just Canada’s federal and provincial governments, but also employers and individuals seeking employment. It would require a radical re-thinking of post-secondary education in this country and a new governance approach for this key sector of the Canadian society.

Ken Coates, Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan, made an important point in an analysis of the country’s post-secondary education:  “Our system is based on the deification of individual choice. People get to go where they want. We aren’t shaping the process.” A national post-secondary education strategy would not limit students’ choices, but would help guide them towards sectors and specializations that are in demand.

“We need to deliver the right people with the right credentials to the right economy at the right time,” added James Knight, President of the Association of Canadian Community Colleges, in a Globe and Mail article. Definitely not an easy feat. Yet universities and colleges along with the federal and provincial governments should initiate steps towards coordinating educational programs and matching labour supply to demand.

An example where this approach would be highly beneficial relates to regional needs for engineers. An assessment provided by Engineers Canada and Randstad Engineering indicates that all Canadian provinces will face job shortages in this area at some point in the 2012-2018 period. (Source: The Engineering & Technology Path: Choose Early, Choose Well, in Maclean’s magazine, Nov. 19, 2012)

Canadian Graduate and Professional Students – A Happy Bunch (Except for the Ones That Aren’t)

The Canadian Association of Graduate Studies (CAGS) published highlights from the latest Canadian Graduate and Professional Student Survey (CGPSS), administered in 2010. The Association has also indicated that researchers are permitted access to an anonymized survey dataset, “for purposes of improving graduate student experience in Canada.” Access requests, made through an online form, will be reviewed by the CAGS National CGPSS Steering Committee. Some key findings are captured below:

Doctoral, Master’s Students Are Generally Satisfied with Their University Experience

Among 13,400 doctoral students surveyed, 50% rated the relationship of their graduate program content to their research or professional goals as “very good” and “excellent” (30% thought it was “good,” while the rest rated it as “fair” or “poor”).

More than 60% rated similarly the quality of the support and opportunities received in conducting independent research since starting their graduate program. However, only 40% of doctoral students rated the opportunities for student collaboration or teamwork as “very good” and “excellent.” (The lower satisfaction scores for student collaboration/ teamwork among doctoral students should not come as a surprise, given the typical length of a doctoral program and the largely independent nature of the work).

Among 13,500 master’s students (with thesis), more than half rated the relationship of their graduate program content to their research or professional goals as “very good” and “excellent.” 56% said the same thing about the quality of the support and opportunities received. 48% thought the opportunities for student collaboration or teamwork were “very good” and “excellent.”

English: Graduate Students' Union at the Unive...

English: Graduate Students’ Union at the University of Toronto (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Drill Down Though and You’ll Find Differences: Sciences & Health Sciences vs. Non-Health Professions & Humanities

Mean scores by disciplines indicate that doctoral students in Business/Management valued more than all others the “program content” and “research collaboration” (but somewhat less “student collaboration” and “independent research”). On all these categories, doctoral students in Sciences, as well as those in Health Sciences had higher levels of satisfaction than students in other programs (students in Health Sciences were slightly less satisfied with “program content”).

The worst scores on “program content,” “student collaboration,” “independent research” and “research collaboration” were registered from doctoral students in Non-Health Professions (and from students in the Humanities relating to collaboration opportunities).

Master’s students (with thesis) present a more mixed picture. Students in Sciences were the most satisfied among their peers with “independent research” and “research collaboration.” Students in Education were among the most satisfied with “program content” and “student collaboration.”

Master’s students in the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Non-Health Professions were more likely to indicate they were less satisfied with these aspects of the student experience.

CAGS points out that “[b]reakdown by gender and immigration status also has been considered. Differences appear quite small, however. Since representation by gender and immigration status is highly non-homogeneous across disciplines, and disciplines have a significant influence, general breakdown by gender and immigration status does not seem to be relevant. This breakdown should be studied at the discipline level.”

Doctoral Students: Do It All Again? Same Field, Different Place…

Among doctoral students, just 31% answered “definitely” to the question “If you were to start your graduate/professional career again, would you select this same university?” However, 54% would select the same field of study and 50% would select the same faculty supervisor.

CAGS notes that doctoral students in Business/Management give on average higher marks for “research training and career orientation.” On the other hand, doctoral students in the Humanities give on average higher marks for “quality of teaching” but lower marks for ‘“research training and career orientation.” Engineering students give low marks for “supportive dissertation advisor” and for “quality of teaching.” A summary of benchmark scores by disciplines, at the doctoral and master’s level (with thesis), can be found on the CAGS website.

Survey responses were obtained in 2010 from 38,618 students at 38 Canadian universities (19,199 from Ontario, 10,208 from Quebec, and 9,211 from other provinces). “The survey originated from joint US/Canadian efforts to survey graduate students, parallel to the similar study of undergraduates, the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE).”