Sunday, September 28, 2014

Remarkable: The Assault on the Sub-2-Hour Marathon

I woke up this morning to the news of a new world record being set in the marathon. Dennis Kimetto completed the Berlin Marathon in a time of 2:02:57, the first runner to complete the marathon in under 2:03. Apart from Dennis Kimetto's barrier breaking pace, the world record was also attained by the 2nd place finisher Emmanuel Mutai who was 20 seconds off the pace.

The feat is another remarkable step in the progression toward running a sub-2-hour marathon, something which has become discussed increasingly in the running world as a possibility. There is still debate raging about this, but nothing of the nature that occurred prior to Roger Bannister's achievement of the 4-minute mile, something which was considered a clear and unattainable barrier to human athletic performance.  The debate has been a subject of when and how it seems rather than if.  The record is 5 minutes faster than it was 45 years ago and 52 minutes faster than it was at the turn of the century.

As a casual runner who as completed a grand total of one marathon I have some sense of the effort, discipline and ongoing mental strength it takes to achieve this performance. For Mr. Kimetto and Mr. Mutai, this morning's progress has been the culmination of a career of preparation toward this peak performance. It may well be that this two hours and change of running this morning may be the finest two hours of their athletic performance and that they achieved a state that is rarely attainable for any human.

However, for these two men and the handful of elite runners who they have competed most closely with over the course of their elite-level careers there is probably a fraternity of colleagues who can tell one another that there were minor lapses here and there through such races that they would like to have back and that there were aspects of the mental management of the race that they would fine tune before pursuing the distance the next time around.

The feat is duly remarkable.  The two-hour pace is one that many casual runners set as their goal for a half-marathon.  For my own comparison I have to look at the pace I run when I am sprinting.  Ten days ago I ran a set of 100 metre sprints and was thrilled, not to mention gasping, to complete single 100 metre sprints in under 20 seconds.  I joked to my wife afterward that I (at 47) was nearly half as fast as Usain Bolt.  The reality this morning is that if I happened to run one of my sprints as Mr Kimetto ran by, he still would have easily passed me on the last stretch of his run this morning.  His pace for the marathon in Berlin averaged 2:49 a kilometre or about 4 seconds faster than me over 100 metres. It is time for me to head out and work on my sprinting. As I do that the next time out I will marvel at how Mr. Kimetto, Mr. Mutai and others who are on their heels manage to perform and push each other to.

It may be another few decades before the two hour barrier is achieved but has training techniques, nutrition for these athletes and other aspects of the sport continue to evolve the world records in the race will continue to fall by small increments until that barrier is broken.  Runners everywhere, even the most casual, will be inspired and amazed by today's feat and with each increment toward that is made toward that benchmark.  Hopefully as these athletes work toward a record that has seemed unattainable they will gain more international recognition.  On a Sunday when TV audiences will pick at their brunches fixated on the Ryder Cup, click through the NFL menu throughout the afternoon and keep an eye on the last day of the MLB regular season, the achievement in Berlin is the one that deserves the front page of the sports section and ought to be considered among the sporting achievements of the year.

Until the record is broken again.

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 Alberta labour market, shortages of skills that currently exist and will likely become more pronounced in the coming years as baby boomers retire.

One of the highlights of the report are that gaps in Essential Skills and Soft Skills are increasingly apparent among new or recent entrants to the labour market.  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 Canada West 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 alternatives to English 101 for students who graduated Grade 12 without the communications skills required and add writing programs to remediate these as well.  Similar to 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 graduate without their limited communications skills and soft skills being identified, evaluated and remediated.

Part of the motivation of the whole language movement when it was introduced 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."

If new employees are bringing a strong sense of entitlement in lieu of the skills required, that would provide part of the explanation of the paradox of a skills shortage and an apparent job shortage occurring at the same time.

One might argue, as a recent article from The Globe and Mail suggests, that these limitations among university graduates may be in part a consequence of the programs they enter. Arts graduates are still graduating with the critical thinking and communications skills required in the job market today. Business, Science and other programs with more apparent technical components may be more focused on determining if the technical skills have been developed and sigh and shrug at gaps in other skills because it is not their responsibility to develop those.  Furthermore, there is an ongoing challenge in ensuring the technical aspects of those degrees remain current, something employers noted when responding to interviews during the Foundation's study.  At the post-secondary level, it could be address by ensuring that Business and Science students are getting the opportunity to develop these communications and critical thinking skills as a part of their programs or by

For these problems with skills shortages to be addressed, the mandate of the K-12 system needs to be carefully examined.  If it is determined that these skills ought to be developed at the K-12 level, then the Ministry of Education needs to adjust the K-12 mandate to ensure this.  As the stakeholders look to come together to resolve the labour shortages that are imminent, this stakeholder must not be overlooked.  Also, ensuring the post-secondary students have the opportunity to further develop these skills in addition to the technical skills they develop in Science, Business and other programs with greater emphasis on technical skills needs to be ensured.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Fallacy of a Justifying Future

"I just can't believe in anything that claims to be prophetic or oracular. Don't forget about all the dire consequences involved when you employ arguments based on a non-existent future. All the genocides that were committed under the sophism of a future filled with light, because of the false promise of a marvellous future. Nothing like that exists. An argument based on the future is a lie."
Eloy Urroz, Mexican-American novelist, The Family Interrupted, 2011

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.