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JDI Roundtable on Manufacturing Competitiveness in New Brunswick

Here’s how universities can help on jobs

Herb Emery

The Higgs government has asked universities to do more to address labour market needs. In response, many have interpreted this as a demand that universities move from an emphasis on education to training, and to offer programs where the graduates are in demand – meaning less money for the humanities and more for business and computer science. 

In other words, universities are being asked to change what they do. But what if a better solution is for universities to change how they do things?

A common perception is that some university degree programs have better job prospects than others. We have seen rising demand among students for professionally oriented degree programs, such as commerce, nursing, engineering and computer science. We have also seen student demand for programs like English and history waning, allegedly because there are no jobs for graduates.

Consequently, we see calls for universities to change what they do in terms of what programs will grow and which will shrink. 

Unfortunately, these common perceptions are not correct. There is not a tight relationship between a person’s area of study in university and their occupation after graduation, so it’s really not as simple as changing how many spaces are in different programs. And university graduates overall have high levels of employment and higher incomes than Canadians who do not pursue a university education. This is in part due to the geographic mobility of university graduates, which is a good thing. 

In my opinion, the problem isn’t what universities teach, but how we organize our degree programs and what we have students do in their courses.

Last week I hosted a colleague at UNB who is recruiting students for his master’s program in business analytics at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. The program was built around my colleague’s experience working as an economist at Amazon. The curriculum is focused on content that a graduate would need to know, and be able to do, to work in business analytics in large tech companies and other industries moving into “big data.” 

This focus helped create the course structure in his program. It also informed the list of undergraduate courses a student would need to take to pursue a master’s degree in business analytics. (Earnings in this field start at US$75,000 to US$90,000.)

As it turns out, the necessary preparation is a combination of courses in math, computer science, economics and something that develops written communication skills. In other words, the core courses required for the “hot” field of business analytics are surprisingly traditional in content, and most of these courses are currently offered in most universities.

To boot, most requirements are not particularly deep or complex, at least compared to the content needed to graduate with a major in any one of those disciplines. 

But while these courses are taught in universities, try to find more than a handful of students on our campuses in New Brunswick who have structured their own degrees this way. Today, we develop programs around disciplines instead of employment outcomes; in turn, we focus more on depth than on breadth.

Given the specialized knowledge base of university graduates, the perceived advantage that engineers hold over other university graduates is that employers must believe it is easier to learn how to write and do economics outside of formal education than it is for a humanities graduate to master differential equations and computer programming. Still, even with all the success of engineering and other STEM graduates of late, employers lament the lack of communication skills and critical thinking in the available workforce.

In other words, our universities offer what Nobel economics laureate Robert Shiller describes as “compartmentalized intellectual life,” and this is what’s limiting their value-added to the economy. As my colleague from Florida described the situation, universities produce well-educated, but unemployable, graduates.

If we reconfigured our degree programs around what one would need to work in particular jobs, then we might have different recommended and recognized combinations of courses. We wouldn’t necessarily change what courses we schedule to teach each year. We would use the feedback from employers and other stakeholders who are seeking to employ our graduates to change the combination of courses that we encourage students to pursue over their four years. We would have more employable graduates, but with less disciplinary specialization.

The bigger step will come from how we deliver courses and assessments. I have two simple examples to provide.

First, we need to provide more value from the courses. Over time, larger class sizes in undergraduate programs have made term papers, focused on research and writing, less common. They’ve been replaced by exams with short-answer or multiple-choice questions. This has meant that, over the 30 years since I graduated from my bachelor’s program, the experiential or training content of degree programs has fallen. 

We can reverse that by bringing more depth to assessment. Many universities are doing this by supplementing large lectures with weekly problem-solving exercises in small group tutorials led by trained teaching assistants. There should be more of this. 

Second, when we teach students statistics, we often have them learn specialized software preferred by academic researchers like SAS, SPSS and STATA. But the majority of actual workplaces use Microsoft Excel. Why aren’t more of our undergraduate courses using software and other tools that students will actually use in the workplace after graduation?

New Brunswick’s universities can do more for meeting the province’s labour market needs and other economic and social challenges. University autonomy is not threatened by this mission, nor do we need to change what the university does. Most of all, changing how we organize our degree programs and how we incorporate more elements of skills training into our education mission doesn’t even require that much additional effort or cost. Universities just have to decide to do it.

Herb Emery is a Brunswick News columnist and the Vaughan Chair in Regional Economics at the University of New Brunswick.

This article first appeared in Brunswick News publications – Oct. 30, 2019

The JDI Roundtable on Manufacturing Competitiveness in New Brunswick is an independent research program made possible through the generosity of J.D. Irving, Ltd. The funding supports arms-length research conducted at UNB.