Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Roots of the Soft Skills Shortage

Earlier this week the Canada West Foundation released a report titled Talent is Not Enough outlining the skills shortage that has become increasingly evident throughout Alberta.  The report highlights, among other issues impacting the labour market in the province shortages of skills that the province is facing and that will likely become more pronounced in the coming years as baby boomers retire.

One of the highlights of the report are the gaps in Essential Skills and Soft Skills that are apparent among new or recent entrants to the labour market.  Technical skills are being developed, though there may be instances or fields where there are still not enough people with those technical skills entering the market.  While the report covers issues such as industry's reduced funding of training and the protocols that delay the post-secondary sectors efforts to promptly addressing training needs, there are a number of matters pertaining to the gaps in essential and soft skills that stem from long-standing deficiencies in education.

The issues with soft skills and essential skills could arguably be set on the steps of public schools but get only the briefest mention of their needs to adapt and contribute to resolving the skills shortage that the Foundation outlines in its report.  While a great deal of the discussion of education is aimed at the initiatives that the post-secondary sector has developed to address these gaps, the K-12 system only gets the briefest mention in the concluding "Pathways to Success" portion of the report.  As an educator who has worked in the K-12 sector and the post-secondary sector I can still clearly recall the concerns that I encountered when: a) junior high school students could not properly spell but English-language educators (their use of the noun, not mine) under the spell of the whole-language movement held off on correcting students on grammatical or spelling mistakes.

There was some rationale to the whole-language movement and it may have had its merits when working with elementary age students who were in the process of putting together the language as well as they could and may have benefited from more relaxed approaches to language acquisition, there had to be a time and place where teachers would take the initiative to correct the students and sway them from their spell as you go tendencies and other communicative strategies that disregarded the need for the language to be a common medium of exchange.  As this cohort of students moved through the public school system with their ungrounded assumptions about their communications abilities.

As those students moved into university without the writing skills required to complete papers coherently, more of those institutions found themselves having to offer options to English 101 for students who graduated Grade 12 without the skills that were required and add writing programs to remediate these communications problems as well.  Like some employers that were mentioned in the report, the universities did not feel that it was their purview to teach skills that ought to have been developed before these students sought admission to university.  Eventually, they waved the white flag and offered these alternate classes, but there are still university students who can get through their degree programs without their limited communications skills and soft skills being identified, evaluated and remediated.  The alternative of failing university students who lack these soft skills and essential skills is rarely exercised.

Part of the motivation of the whole language movement had been to preserve the self-esteem of students and forego the risk of harming their feelings with the trauma of correction of obvious mistakes.  Another consequence of this approach to public education, apart from the buck-passing that has occurred as students advance from one grade to the next without learning the skills required is that, as the report indicates on page 10, "post-secondary graduates often have unrealistic expectations and a sense of entitlement.  Their aspirations do not match the opportunities available to them.  They may not be willing to begin in entry-level positions or they may expect immediate promotions and salary increases."

Such attitudes among new post-secondary graduates can easily be confirmed anecdotally by recruiters and hiring managers.  If new employees are bringing such a strong sense of entitlement in lieu of the skills required that would provide an explanation of the paradox of a skills shortage and an apparent job shortage occurring at the same time.

For these problems with these skills shortages to be addressed the mandate of the K-12 system needs to be carefully examined and if it is determined that the development of essential skills and soft skills ought to take place at the K-12 level rather than by another institution, potentially on a remedial basis, then the Ministry of Education needs to adjust the mandate to ensure these are achieved.  As the stakeholders look to come together to resolve the labour shortages that are imminent, this stakeholder must not be overlooked.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Fallacy of a Justifying Future

I am in the process of polishing a manuscript describing the two years I spent teaching in the Canadian Arctic with the intent of publishing it as an e-book in the coming weeks or months and I paused on a rather significant question that many teachers ponder at one point or another.  The question was how strongly my approach to work as a teacher was justified (rightly or wrongly) by the belief that I would be proven right at some unknown point in the future.

All teachers have to invest some degree of faith or confidence that they are contributing to a meaningful long-term goal and accept that the results of their work may never be known to them.  Of the eight kids I taught, a few sent me pictures of themselves and letters in the years shortly after I left the Arctic.  More recently, twenty-plus years after I left, three have friended me on Facebook, but other than that there is little that I can add to the column.  I cannot tell from this distance that those students are handling adulthood, parenthood, employment or any of the other challenges that face them in a manner that would reflect my actions in the classroom and indicate a positive outcome from the time I spent with them during the two years we were together.

This uncertainty takes me back to the notion that a justifying future is a fallacy.  It is a ploy we rely on to help ourselves carry on in the face of doubt, or perhaps to justify the way we act with others, whether it is as a teacher, parent, partner or colleague.  I do not wish to suggest that this fallacy is something that visionaries or scientists indulge in carelessly.  They take an entrepreneurial approach and invest their time, energy and reputation it influencing the future in a more concrete way and they do so conscious of the risks of failure, whether they are career-ending or the bump in the road that entrepreneurs are familiar with.

Going back to the classroom, where in the Arctic compulsory education was arguably a key part of an extended and troubled bit of social engineering, the perceived future was a dangerous justifier of an endeavour that was misguided and poorly executed.  As C.W. Hobart and C.S. Brant put it in 1966:
"much of contemporary [Inuit] education in the ... Canadian Arctic is inappropriate, and perhaps even dis-educative from the standpoint of preparation for the life children will lead as adults."
The fallacy of a justifying future enabled teachers to adopt the attitude of, "I know what's good for you," but worse yet it encouraged the institutional leadership we were employed by to adopt the approach to education that it did.  At the individual classroom level my refusal to allow the students to listen to Metallica's Enter Sandman full blast on an ailing Sears, single speaker cassette player was one minor example of me using the future to justify my actions.  I would hope that I did this in a respectful manner.  However, I was sticking to the curriculum that students throughout the rest of 
Qu├ębec were abiding my.  The justifying future in that instance was far less respectful on the Inuit people or their culture and 25 years after the Hobart and Brant article and nearly 50 years later the education is likely just as dis-educative.

There is a risk that we as individuals, societies are as capable of this fallacy.  Businesses and other institutions risk it as well even when presented with data to the contrary or opposition and ridicule. This morning I came across an article indicating that Mercedes-Benz is choosing to disregard data cities.  Their position is that the data is more complex and that this shift is not going to be sustained. As a corporation they are entitled to take this risk and the consequences will largely impact them.  In other instances where faith-based organizations, most notoriously the Westboro Baptist Church, conduct themselves in the least forgiving of manners with the fallacy that their hatred will be approved of when they get to "their" heaven.

Ultimately, we may look to the future with hope, but our aspirations must be realistic rather than narcisstic and our actions and attitudes must remain grounded in respect for others and their aspirations for the future rather than the assumption that we know best.

Compartmentalizing Versus Character in the NFL

Greg Hardy, Carolina Panthers
 The string of domestic violence issues that have drawn eyes to the NFL this month and an appropriate level of criticism as well.  Such charges are not unusual within the NFL or other sports for that matter and they are not unique to North America as well.  The problem this time around has been the lack of will to discipline these players appropriately for their actions.  While Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Ray McDonald and Greg Hardy may each have their apologists too many look to compartmentalize what these athletes do on the field from what they do off the field.

The apologists may be happy that Ray McDonald was able to play for the San Francisco 49ers while facing charges for a domestic violence incident and hoping that Hardy (who played the season opener despite a conviction) and Rice somehow find their way back onto the field despite the obstacles they each face.  The apologists are too caught up in the game to recognize the these men do not merit the retinues of fans supporting them merely because of their achievements between the lines.  The on-field glory that these athletes have accomplished should in no way earn them a retinue of blindly obedient fans willing to overlook their flaws, especially flaws as egregious as these.  Fan loyalty the day after a loss or painful season is an indication of faith, the familiar promise of, "Wait till next year."
Ray McDonald, San Francisco 49ers

This fan loyalty morphs into something entirely unhealthy when one continues to applaud the man under these circumstances.  I am not suggesting that these man be pilloried or ostracized for their actions, but that fans detach enough to make a clear assessment of what the man has done and what the consequences are for his victim(s) and for society as a whole when public figures and like it or not, role models treat women and children in this way and expect to evade the consequences.  Blind support at these times only feeds the sense of superiority that motivates professional athletes to believe that they are not only above the law but also that their partners are such a threat that they can or ought to be treated with violence.  If there is an interest in seeing these men redeemed then it has to begin with acknowledging and accepting their character flaws and wishing them well on their amending these matters rather than enabling them to continue presuming their conduct is tolerable.

Going beyond the fans, even more needs to be said for the organizations that insist on disregarding these athletes' conduct because having standards of character would somehow get in the way of victory.  Organizations such as the Carolina Panthers and the San Francisco 49ers have easily compartmentalized significant character issues out of the discussion of what benefits their team from one week to the next.  There may be a mindset that acknowledges that such violent tendencies may come with the territory when one is looking for high-level performers in such a violent sport and the best efforts are made to overlook it or, once again, compartmentalize it.  In the case of Greg Hardy, convicted and pending appeal, that skill set is worth $13.1 million to the Carolina Panthers.  Beyond the NFL, there needs to be an examination of the moves NCAA boosters and administrations indulge in to protect stars players from the consequences of their actions.

The athletes involved and their organizations are supposed to be professionals familiar with their public profile but they seem overly eager to exercise their right to brush aside those fans that buy the jerseys and wear them, seek autographs and bemoan the benchings that impact their fantasy squads. The character of the athlete needs to bring the character of the organization and the character of the fans into question if they are tolerant of this type of behaviour.
Ray Rice, formerly of the Baltimore Ravens

Amidst the growing undeniable evidence of the brain damage that has stemmed from playing football and other matters related to providing a safe and healthy workplace for these athletes, teams need to start looking carefully at the types of environments they are asking these young men to work and live in.  Denying that these young men may have issues with character that would land them and their organizations in the large font ink that these men have merited over the last few months and others have earned in years passed cannot continue to be overlooked.  Efforts must be made to prepare the players and the organizations for situations such as these and policies regarding domestic violence and other crimes must be applied consistently within the NFL.  Whether it is Commissioner Roger Goodell's apparently unsteady hand, or a separate disciplinary body run under the league there needs to be a standard that ensures that the league acts in response to charges and convictions against its players rather than leaves it to the teams to regulate.  It appears that the NFL is taking steps to address the gaps in policy addressing domestic violence among its players but it remains to be seen how willing the league and its franchises are willing to go to address an issue that has been far too prevalent since long before the perfect storm that has unfolded since the start of the 2014 season.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Is The Workplace the Current or Future Frontier of Multiculturalism In Canada?

After over a generation of multiculturalism in Canada, it could be said that we may be resting on our laurels or settling for our branding as a multicultural nation. The reality is that the work is something that needs to be sustained.  Whether it is for the sake of committing ourselves to the mission of maintaining a multicultural nation or achieving the competitive advantage that Canada is slowly letting slip away in the face of looming global job shortages, there are few new modes where Canada's progress toward greater multiculturalism is being sustained. The promise of accommodation and tolerance that has long attracted newcomers to our shores is being challenged due to changes in policy and attitude within the federal government and because of the increased pressure for the workplace to adapt and facilitate greater integration of a larger number of newcomers to Canada.

While Canadians may be getting bogged down in the semantics or hyphenation of the national discussion of multiculturalism there are realities of integration that are still hard to overcome.  There are obstacles for internationally educated professionals to gain the accreditation or certification that they require to work as engineers, lawyers, accountant, doctors and in other professions.  This may be a matter of those professional bodies wanting to regulate the supply of professionals in their fields and ensure standards are maintained in areas where matters of public safety are concerned.  It could, however, be just as easily a trumped up anxiety about the cultural differences or the quality of education these professionals received.

However, in other professions and occupations, international experience is disregarded and often calculated at a rate of 5 or 10 years of international experience worth a year of Canadian experience.  (This, of course refers to newcomers from developing countries rather than those coming from industrialized European countries, Australia, New Zealand and the US.)  Given the labour shortages that are regularly forecast for Canada and the rest of the industrialized world, such fussy math when recruiting is a luxury that ought to be reconsidered.  Those employers who adopt more flexible recruiting strategies will be ahead of their competitors when it comes to tapping into the labour pool in the future and integrating diverse talent into their workforces.  For some reason this is all treated like the typical "good for you" advice like people receive time and again about diet, exercise and other habits.  At some level in larger organizations and institutions there is resistance to adapting and those groups will lose their competitive advantage to smaller organizations that have been more forward-thinking on this crucial labour issue.

Organizations and businesses that begin transforming their organizations into more diverse and multicultural teams, will have gone through the pain of adaptation at a time when the competition for foreign talent has not yet peaked.  They will have achieved the critical mass to create and support a diverse, multicultural workplace and do so in a more intuitive manner.  If their competitors ignore the warnings about labour shortages until it is too late, they will be fused to the starting blocks and facing significant declines in productivity that will compromise their ability to respond to the challenge.

The workplace is a key node for newcomers to integrate into the greater community and, given the economic forces bringing so many newcomers to Canada, employers have the opportunity and responsibility to play a large role in the integration process.  Helping newcomers become familiar with workplace culture can be challenging in the short-term but the benefits will accrue in short order as the team becomes more diverse in terms of perspective. The temptation is to say, "That's just the way we do it," but reflecting in depth on our workplace habits and explaining them more thoroughly is just one step toward welcoming and retaining new staff and creating an environment where that new talent can make the contributions that they are capable of.  Once an organization makes the decision to hire, integrate and accept (rather than tolerate) talent from around the world, they will improve their ability to face the coming labour shortages and achieve productivity benefits that will become tangible when they recognize the talent and potential they have injected into their organization.  Commitment to this requires support and insight to foresee the challenges that will emerge in the short to medium term, but it will pay off by creating a more synergistic organization.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Time Travelling Monday at the Multiplex

As I ate a pizza prior to showtime I noted the clutch of kids lingering outside the multiplex.  A sign that the doors were closed and that the venue and the product were aimed at them at this hour, 1pm on an August Monday.  Looking ahead to the movie I meandered here to see, I wondered which of the movies on the screens today would mark this summer for them.  When I was their age, I'd likely footnote E.T. and Poltergeist from the summer when I was 15.  The other details -- my parent's ailing Buick Century wagon, the house, the food of the day, the paper route -- all come back, but only with a bit more effort than either of the movies brought, or even those respective trips to the theatres.  I still distinctly recall the spill that resulted from trying to lug three drinks with their straws already installed. The decay of the Buick and the gamut of repairs that piled up, however, escapes me in its entirety.

This afternoon, this 47-year-old father of a 2-year-old (okay, he's closer to 3) looked back at various pasts and into the future as I occupied the back row of cinema 6 for Richard Linklater's Boyhood

There were maybe a dozen viewers in total, all adult and probably a decent turn-out for the time of day. Given Linklater's reputation for pushing the envelope on the narrative of his films with the Before series he has done with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy and by adapting the non-fiction book Fast-Food Nation into a feature picture rather than a documentary, the notion of him taking 12 years to make a coming of age picture does not come as a complete surprise or a viewing experience that would lack reward.  As the film moved from limited release to gradually wider release this past weekend, I was eager to take it in before it slipped away from the local screens.

From the moment Eller Coltrane's Mason begins dialogue with his mother, played by Patricia Arquette, as the two drive home from school and discuss his homework, it is clear that Linklater cast the lead role brilliantly, if not perfectly. Coltrane's performance from these opening moments one that is unguarded and nuanced with a realism that throughout the movie that left me feeling more like a bug on a neighbour's wall rather than a popcorn-eater in the dark.  The movie was a constant invitation to meditate on the era that has just passed, my own youth and look ahead to the rites of passage that my son will go through and lead me through as the years ahead fly by all too quickly.  There were occasions throughout the movie, where I reflected on my own experiences dealing with peer pressure and as a parent think of how precarious a situation may unfold if my son does not have the sense of direction and moment that Mason had in most instances.

The drama in the movie was realistic and did not resort to more substantial traumas that might unbalance other characters in other stories and leave them scrambling to rediscover equilibrium by the end.  Instead, the audience is asked to follow the path and thoughts of the quiet, thoughtful dreamer splayed on the lawn in the first shot and grapple with the ever-lingering question, "What do you want to do?"  It is not an unfamiliar question but the story of Mason's growth is presented with such a degree of intimacy that the characters feel familiar in ways that they do not when the drama is more contrived to suit formula.  There are dramatic elements on the home front throughout the movie: changes of homes, careening marriages and the trouble that kids find their way into when they are finding their way and testing themselves and their boundaries but the main question that lingers in the audience is the opening one.  What is Mason going to grow up to be?

With this film, Richard Linklater has invited the audience to meditate on the gradual growth of his character in a film with novelistic depth.  Its poignancy, eye for the era that has passed and for the rites that all boys go through in one way or another resulted in a movie of quiet, confident brilliance.  As the story closed on this chapter, I thought about the years that lay ahead for my wife and I until, as Mason's mother put it on the day he leaves home, "The worst day of my life!"  This movie is more likely to resonate with me 12 years from now than it may with the boys who lined up for Guardians of the Galaxy (probably the 3D version) but it will be one that I will dust off for my son at a certain moment in our lives to let him know that -- even if he may find himself out of his element at some point in his life -- his experience is a common one and that he'll get through it somehow.  Really.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


It is a privilege to recall Robin Williams' brilliant career from that meteoric rise in the late 1970's to all that has transpired since.  There is a stock photo of Williams' as a street performer in New York, complete with the grease paint of a mime in the 1977 World Book Encyclopedia Year Book.  The publishers' assumption may have been that Williams still had the anonymity to pass as just another bit of local New York street colour but by the time the volume was in circulation he had already appeared on Happy Days as the alien Mork and spun off on to Mork and Mindy (and made a leap into the present) shortly after that.  The attire was much the same template that Mork wore the blue and orange striped T-shirt and suspenders so there was no denying that Mork was Williams' The childlike energy and sense of wonder that Mork possessed was convincingly alien to me and Garry Marshall's casting of Williams as an alien may have been the only way to bring Williams' talents to the large audiences that he achieved with his previous sitcoms.  It was the first of countless revelations as Robin Williams matured.

As the spark of inspiration that fed Mork and Mindy ran its course and Williams took his talents and his profile onto the concert stage that energy was unbound and there was a sense at the time that he was where he belonged and that the movies like Popeye and Moscow on the Hudson were either respectable efforts or bombs because they just didn't get Williams or make the most of the talents that he had.  The stand-up routines where he spun off moments such as Elmer Fudd singing Bruce Springsteen's "Fire" or conjured the notion of Pavarotti working a night club with a "two Jews walk into a bar" riff that are firmly deeply etched in my mind.  If there was such a thing as stand-up karaoke there are countless wannabes (myself included) who would revel in the opportunity to bring their best tribute to Williams to the stage.  In that medium he was unbound by script and expectation and improvised at will.  The results were brilliant, profane and profound.  In his 1987 A Night at the Met, Willams emphasizes his concerns about raising his kids and poignant concerns about whether he or any of us for that matter can do it in a world that has given him the material that it had during the Reagan era.

Could any of us have imagined Mork was a mere 20 years away from an Oscar?

The serious work was always there, whether as that respite during stand up work, the efforts such as the adaptation of Saul Bellow's Seize the Day (for PBS no less) and the touches that he added to those more manic film roles he was expected to perform his shtick in.  Good Morning Vietnam had acknowledged the war rather than merely used it as a backdrop for Williams and that indicated the transition to "more serious" work and his performance in the face of the street warfare was on-key and the transition to the role in Dead Poets Society gave him the platform and space to do what was familiar to audiences while bringing a complex character to the screen.  Was John Keating doing right by his students to inspire them as rebelliously as they did?  Was he giving those students that proper opportunity to think critically by having them tear pages out of the texts on day one? He made teaching literature cool.

Awakenings. Robin Williams had the quiet, introverted, awkward part while DeNiro had the role that let him cut loose.  It may have been the most stunning moment of his career, a revelation of the depth he invested himself in a role or a performance.  (I should not overlook the curiosity that Penny Marshall, sister of Garry, directed him in this role.)  There was never a moment in the movie where he turned manic with one of those signature riffs that left me wondering how in the hell the animators on Aladdin managed to adequately animate the vocal performance he provided without massive doses of coffee or a hair transplant or how everyone else on the set of his other performances could keep a straight face.

The energy that went into those broader performances was present in the calm, restrained roles such as Malcolm Sayer in Awakenings and in that you could see the professionalism and commitment to his craft and the ability to immerse himself into his roles as deeply as actors we are more apt to laud and lionize.  It was a commitment that made Williams succeed, regardless of audiences' expectations and it may have challenged writers and directors to ensure that he had plenty of material to draw on to make a character. Each time he performed he took those around him to a new and unexpected place and the results were breathtaking. In Awakenings, however, he did so much with his hands in the quietest most private moments to communicate the vulnerability of a brilliant character he played in that movie.  He was capable as packing as much into the slightest, most minimal gestures as he did into his entire body when doing improv or stand-up.

That vulnerability that he exposed in Awakenings and in Good Will Hunting was at the heart of his work throughout his career and life. There was so much more left in him, but maybe I'm assuming that with the selfishness of the audience when he actually left us when he was truly and finally spent. Farewell and thank you.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Step

Today marks the 45th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon.  It is undeniably remarkable that the Age of Flight accelerated from the first flight at Kitty Hawk to this apogee in the space of a mere 60 years and despite the other events of the day it may have been the most optimistic moment for the United States of the second half of the 20th Century.

It seems odd that, despite those halcyon days of the 1960s and early 1970s, the era of American space travel is all but over.  Whenever I look at my 2-year-old's picture books with their images of Saturn rockets and space shuttles, it strikes me as odd that they are ultimately relics of a bygone era. That something so laden with technology and ambition to shape the future is a museum piece because the ambition itself has been rendered moot by the economics are questions about the return on investment seems incongruous.  Telling him that the space shuttle is in a museum but not because it has been replaced by more modern technology flies in the face of our long-standing assumptions about progress.

And that may be a good thing.

During the 1960's, there was probably a gee whiz glee and the possibilities of what's next and a belief that progress itself was an immutable or even an immortal thing that would never stop rewarding us with new awes or gadgets and that challenges could be met merely by pouring more energy, money or effort into something.  There is still the occasional murmur about heading to Mars on a mission, but given the distance that would have to be covered and it is more likely to remain science fiction or fantasy.  NASA no longer has the fleet or perhaps the talent that it once had so their progress toward a Mars mission is likely proceeding at a much slower pace than they would like.  Today, however, few people can trace direct links between the benefits of the technology that went into the space program or the research that was done.  There were achievements but they have likely been taken for granted or diminished to the snarky response of, "Tang?"

We have heard less and less of the "if we can put a man on the moon" confidence-builder in recent years and it may be due to a loss of hope in solving problems or meeting the challenges that pose themselves to us as a society or a civilization.  It has become more evident that the cliche shows a limited approach to problem-solving and an unrealistic faith in technology as the answer to all problems.  The rocket to the moon mindset is as obsolete remnant of an all-too-linear way of thinking.  Poverty, the drug war, equity are just some of the challenges that had at one point or another been met with the same approach that was adopted when pursuing the moon shot.  Many of these problems are right where they were before the "solution" of more was put forward.

If, over the course of time, we have developed a greater sense that progress has been a mixed blessing and that there need to be solutions that integrate the resources that we have to apply to them rather than just pile them onto a problem without giving too much thought to the way those resources are mixed and calibrated to address the challenges that we are trying to address.  Merely throwing as much as possible or available at a problem is no longer as feasible as it use to be.  Look no further than the cuts that have come to NASA as the American government has struggled with its budgetary restraints.

Beyond that, there have been the possibilities that have emerged when wider ranges of stakeholders have been involved in contributing their insights to problem-solving, creating a more comprehensive approach to problem-solving and moving toward a more rational approach to achieving goals rather than seeking great leaps that never deliver what was advertised.