Universities must ensure that all students acquire ICT skills

Evidence from Canada highlights the scale of the challenge in preparing 21st-century workers and citizens, say Ross Finnie, Arthur Sweetman and Richard Mueller 

February 14, 2019
Students working at computers
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Digital technology is a driving economic and social force, and the increasing need to develop strong information and communication technology skills represents a growing challenge for the Canadian postsecondary education sector.

Forecasts of impending shortages are often greeted with scepticism. However, a recent special edition of the journal Canadian Public Policy – which we edited and in which all of the findings referenced in this article were published – contains a paper revealing that between 1987 and 2016, employment in narrowly defined ICT occupations grew much more than in the rest of the labour market. The number of Canadians in such jobs increased from about 2 per cent to about 5.6 per cent of all workers.

Another paper contains strong evidence that ICT skills are required throughout the labour market, and also for individuals to function effectively as citizens. Even having minimal ICT skills, as opposed to none at all, is observed to increase labour market earnings appreciably.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development defines three categories of ICT skills: “specialist or advanced”, “generic” and “complementary”. Specialists, such as computer programmers or website developers, produce ICT products and services. Workers with generic skills use ICT technologies in their jobs. And complementary skills permit workers to improve their productivity in a variety of tasks, such as by interacting with computerised inventory systems.

Postsecondary education institutions are tasked with providing appropriate learning opportunities in all three categories – each of which offers its own challenges.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, university instructors are increasingly pointing to the need for ICT specialists to have a wide skill set in order to be effective in the workplace. For example, members of the faculty of engineering and applied science at Canada’s Queen’s University point out that professional and regulatory ICT bodies’ expectations now go far beyond professional knowledge, programming and related technical skills. Also required are a wider range of competencies, including problem solving, multidisciplinary team-working and self-management.

Some of these competencies correspond with what were once called “soft skills”, but that are now known by terms such as “21st-century skills” or “transferable skills”. To make progress in these domains, the authors call for a “continuous improvement model” that integrates curriculum design with activities and assessments deliberately selected to develop the whole range of required skills, embedded in the context of each discipline – as opposed to being taught separately.

Members of the Canadian Business/Higher Education Roundtable argue that “all companies are technology companies” given that organisations of all types need workers who can navigate the digital world. Like their counterparts from engineering, the authors advocate for the development of both technological literacy and wider skill sets, including in the generic and complementary ICT skill categories.

These authors argue, in particular, for increased interactions between postsecondary education and the world of work, including the immersion of ICT students in various forms of “work-integrated learning”, including, where relevant, related private-sector research environments. But successful approaches involve collaborative efforts by industry and government – postsecondary institutions cannot do it on their own – and typically require the creation and involvement of formal organisations representing multiple stakeholders (including governments and employers) with these broad skills objectives.

Postsecondary institutions need to be pushing in many directions simultaneously. There is a strong imperative for them to produce graduates with specialist skills specific to each discipline or occupation. But they must also facilitate the development of generic and complementary ICT skills across the entire student body. The same is true of transferable skills more generally. This breadth and depth of demand will not be easy to meet. But it is essential that universities meet it if societies and economies are to flourish in our rapidly changing technological environment.

Ross Finnie is director of the Education Policy Research Initiative (EPRI) and professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. Richard E. Mueller is associate director of EPRI and professor of economics at the University of Lethbridge. Arthur Sweetman is associate director of EPRI and professor of economics at McMaster University.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: ICT skills are no longer optional

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