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The great skills divide: A review of the literature

Discussions of Canada’s so-called œskills gap have reached a fever pitch. Driven by conflicting reports and data, the conversation shows no signs of abating. On the one hand, economic indicators commonly used to identify gaps point to problems limited to only certain occupations (like health occupations) and certain provinces (like Alberta) rather than to a general skills crisis. On the other hand, employers continue to report a mismatch between the skills they need in their workplaces and those possessed by job seekers, and to voice concern that the postsecondary system is not graduating students with the skills they need. This paper is the first of three on Canada’s skills gap. It outlines the conflicting views around the existence and extent of a divide between the skills postsecondary graduate possess and those employers want. In laying out the competing perspectives on this issue, the report identifies four distinct themes that have been conflated in policy debates, in turn hindering efforts to gain a clearer understanding of the skills gap in Canada. For example, in the eyes of some employers and commentators, the skills gap problem is one of too few high-skilled workers in the Canadian labour market. For others, it is a problem of weak essential or soft skills, such as working with others, oral communication and problem solving. Still others use the term œskills gap to refer to what might better be described as an œexperience gap – a shortage of œwork-ready employees possessing those skills that are acquired through work experience. Commentary on the skills gap has tended to lump these different perspectives together and this has acted as an obstacle to a coherent narrative around skills in Canada. This report suggests that these themes should be recognized as distinct from one another. By framing Canada’s skills gap in this way, we set the stage for the second and third papers of this series, which document the expectations of Canadian employers with regard to the skill levels of new graduate hires. In tackling the question of the skills gap at its interface – the initial point of contact between employers and new graduates in the advertisements and hiring processes for entry-level jobs – reports in this series provide new opportunities for groups on both the demand (employers) and supply (postsecondary) sides of the skills gap debate to strengthen alignment between the postsecondary sector and the Canadian labour market.