Slight problem with job retraining

Posted on January 5, 2009 in Debates, Education Debates – Opinion – Slight problem with job retraining
January 05, 2009. Carol Goar

When the economy slumps, post-secondary enrolment surges.

It has happened in every recession since statisticians began tracking the two trends. The worse the downturn, the larger the jump in applications for college and university.

The pattern makes sense. When the job market is bleak, students stay in school. When employers aren’t hiring, undergraduates continue their studies. When layoffs spread, workers return to the classroom.

According to economists, it is a matter of “opportunity costs.” When employment isn’t available, it is no great sacrifice to forgo a potential paycheque.

This year, post-secondary enrolment is likely to grow even faster than economic conditions suggest. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has promised there will be retraining funds in his government’s Jan. 27 budget to make sure “people who lose their jobs are getting ready for the next job.”

Most economists agree that is an intelligent form of economic stimulus. Most Canadians would rather see the unemployed in school than on the streets.

There is one slight problem:

The nation’s colleges and universities aren’t equipped to handle a sharp increase in enrolment. Some are already turning away applicants; others are cancelling courses and letting staff go as their endowments shrink.

This suggests that paying people to go to university or community college – through the Employment Insurance Fund or some other retraining allowance – won’t be effective.

Without more classroom space, more teachers and more courses, only a lucky few will get in the door. Without more creativity on the part of both policy-makers and educators, Canada’s post-secondary system will be a victim, not a beneficiary, of economic circumstances and political expectations.

So what should Ottawa do?

• Increasing provincial transfer payments would help. It would allow colleges and universities to build or rent more space, hire more faculty and deliver more programs.

But it wouldn’t create openings for new applicants anytime soon. Money that has to pass through two bureaucracies isn’t likely to filter down to post-secondary institutions in time to do much good in the short-term.

• Increasing funding for online education would be useful. It would allow universities and colleges to extend their reach without acquiring more real estate.

But some courses can’t be taught properly on a computer. Without lab time, hands-on instruction and group projects, students wouldn’t be fully qualified when they graduated.

• Offering tax breaks to employers to provide on-the-job training might work.

But such efforts have produced tepid results in the past. Unless federal officials can come up with more attractive incentives or a more compelling sales pitch, it is hard to see business taking on a major role in skill development.

• Providing financial assistance to organizations with innovative ideas to train workers for the jobs of the future could produce interesting results. The education sector certainly needs some fresh thinking.

But it takes time to convert a promising concept to a working model, test it, and convince people to be part of the experiment.

The truth is, Ottawa can’t increase the supply of post-secondary spots fast enough to meet the demand.

Its best hope of success lies in working with the provinces, the colleges and universities and the employers who will need trained workers when the economy recovers.

With everybody around the table, difficult issues can be raised and hard questions can be asked: Are academic institutions too calcified to respond to economic imperatives? Should tenured professors spend more time in the classroom? Would it make sense to rationalize Canada’s network of 94 universities and 132 community colleges, some of which are jammed and some of which operating below capacity? Could teaching hours be extended? It is possible to turn empty factories and unused office buildings into teaching space? Are the right skills being taught?

Recessions give nations an opening to make badly needed changes and try approaches that would be resisted in less straitened times.

The opportunity cost of squandering this chance would be incalculable.

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