I caught a faint glimmer of hope for the humanities this week. Likely, you didn’t see it. This week, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce released its annual report on the state of employment training, with the anxiety-inducting title A Battle We Can’t Afford to Lose.
These reports often rehearse the same line: business needs employees with transferable, “soft” skills. And, every year, I roll my eyes and wonder when business is going to address this skills gap in a serious manner – with money and action. (More about that in a later post.)
How badly does business need “soft” skills? Really badly.
In addition to presenting the troubling fact that approximately 40% of the Canadian workers lack the literacy skills needed to perform their work (including a sizeable number of those who have degrees and diplomas), the report also notes that, with the retirement of the baby boom, this skills gap will only increase. (This particular emerging skills gap – the loss of the knowledge regarding conventional written communications – spelling, grammar, that kind of thing – was identified in 2012 by a study undertaken in the US by American Association of Retired People and the Society of Human Resource Managers.)
But this year’s Chamber of Commerce report included a couple of remarkable – even encouraging — observations.
First, the report acknowledged the damage done by the current tendency in business to hire for credentials – particular degrees, majors, and certificates – rather than for skills. Another way to understand the distinction is between what one knows (content learned) and what one can do (skills developed through completion of various tasks). Thus, a business degree, with its focus on knowledge and hands-on applications, will almost always trump a humanities degree, even though the latter demands the development of critical thought, research, and communications abilities – those very skills that employers say they desperately need.
And the faint glimmer? On page 30, in its recommendations, the report acknowledges the inability of business to “easily recognize skill mastery among recent [humanities] graduates.”
That’s as far as it goes, however.
While acknowledging failure of employers to recognize the skills possessed by humanities graduates, the report stops short of calling on these employers to adjust their perspectives. Instead, the report recommends that PSE institutions adjust transcripts to include skills development. Because, you know, employers always ask to see your transcripts.
It was a faint glimmer, like I said.