Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities (HUMA)
Meeting no. 76
December 5th, 2017

**See and hear full transcript here.

Experiential Learning and Pathways to Employment for Canadian Youth

The Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities agreed to undertake a study on the way in which experiential learning can guide younger Canadians through the transitions between high school, post-secondary education and the labour market.

The study has seven main themes:

  • youth underemployment after completing their education;
  • youth unemployment and how it harms the transition to the workforce;
  • volunteerism and internships and how they inform work decisions for students;
  • school-to-work transition strategy in Canada compared with international models and programs;
  • apprenticeships;
  • co-op programs and work-integrated learning; and
  • entrepreneurship.


A quick introduction to the session by the Chair, Mr. Bryan May (Cambridge, Lib.)

The Chair:
Good afternoon, everybody, and welcome.
Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2) and the motion adopted by the committee on Thursday, November 9, 2017, the committee is resuming its study of experiential learning and pathways to employment for Canadian youth. Today the committee will be hearing from witnesses on the subject of underemployment.

Witness Statement 

After Mr. Dan Tadic, Executive Director of the Welding Association, Dr. David P. Burns is invited to present his testimony.

The Chair:
Thank you very much, sir.
Now we go over to Mr. David Burns, faculty member with the department of educational studies at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, coming to us from Surrey, B.C.
You have seven minutes, sir.
Dr. David Burns:
Thank you very much.
        I'd like to use my seven-minute statement to touch on three things. First, to describe the initiatives under way at KPU and in the Lower Mainland that might be of interest to the committee; second, to identify a couple of other contacts who might have interesting information and who you might like to speak to; and third, to identify some possible future directions for federal policy in this area.
        First, KPU is a polytechnic institution, which means that work-integrated learning and pathways to the workforce aren't just priorities for us; they're key purposes. Enabling students to move through their education into appropriate, meaningful work based on what they've learned in their university curriculum is absolutely essential to our mission. That applies to everything from our welding programs and millwright programs to our liberal arts programs and our science programs.
        In pursuit of those goals and values, we have co-operative education experiences, field schools, work-integrated learning experiences, service learning, and partnerships with over 300 local non-profit organizations.
        My interest in this area is, however, much more specific. One of the things we are finding—and this is true across the country—is that while we do have something like a skills shortage, it would be more valid, I think, to conclude that we do not know what skills we have, and that there might be a shortage but we do not know enough about what our graduates know and can do to truly know what the Canadian labour force looks like.
        When you go from grade 12, for example, into first-year university—say, into an undergraduate program—essentially everything the education system knows about you is forgotten. All of the hundreds of assessments that have been taken of your learning and your progress from kindergarten through grade 12 are distilled into a very small number of letter or number grades, depending on the province you go to.
        From the perspective of understanding the skills that members of our labour force actually have, this is a significant national loss. We take all of this information we have about the passions and capacities of students and turn it into something like “B-plus”, and then when they enter university or college experiences, we start building that information from square one: What can they do? What do they know how to do? How have they grown over time? When you graduate from those programs, whether it's in a skilled trade or in an undergraduate program, we again essentially forget what it is that the education system has learned about you, so when you move out into the labour force, you have a certificate or a seal or a degree, which is meant to summarize all of this achievement. In 2017 when we know that a person's competencies are much more important than the ticket or seal or degree attached to their name, we have to start thinking of that as not good enough.
        One of the things that KPU was doing—and this is the research that I'm currently engaged in—is partnering with our local school district, which is Surrey Schools, to see if we can devise ways in which we can admit students to university, not based upon their grades but based upon their actual skills and competencies.
        This year we received permission to admit a small number of students to my university based on their skills and competencies. That test student group will be working with my student research team to propose future university-level policies to allow people to come to our institution with all of that rich detail and competency and ability, and not merely that letter grade, which might still persist. It's something we look at in administration or admission decisions, but really should be peripheral. What Canadian students know how to do is much more complicated than their grades, and if we're going to understand the skills the workforce truly has and needs, we need to start taking a look at that at the high school level and at the undergraduate level.
        All of the information about that study can be found at our lab website, which is, on which we describe the partnership and we'll be posting information about what we find as we proceed in the coming years.
        There are a few persons who I think would be useful in your research. One of them is Dr. McKean, of course, who organized the post-secondary education summit for the Conference Board last week, which is where I met the honourable chair. They recently published some documents on this subject, so they would certainly be worth speaking to.
        Also, as a polytechnic institute, we're a proud member of Polytechnics Canada. One of the things that Polytechnics Canada might provide the committee is some really rigorous analysis of work-integrated learning. Because it's an important area, you get lots and lots of institutions saying that work-integrated learning and these kinds of experiences are a part of what they do, but there's much less concrete policy action, which is what I'm trying to do, and much less evidence-based practice, which is what Polytechnics Canada can provide.
        They collect data from my institution and 12 other polytechnic institutes that might be of significant value in tackling these issues, and they do some terrific work. I think they would certainly be worth speaking to.
        I'll talk about my recommendations for possible future policy action by the federal government. This notion of amnesia is quite significant to me in terms of the system. We lose far too much information that was far too costly to collect through teachers giving assessments and observing students, through professors doing the same, and so forth. It's almost as if—and this is what I noted at the Conference Board—you move from one doctor to the other, and your new doctor does not want to read your medical file. They simply want to know if you are healthy or not, yes or no. All of these different details in a medical file surely are pertinent to your health in much the same way that all of the different competencies you've developed in your bachelor of arts, for example, are relevant to what you could contribute to the workplace.
         I think the federal government has a couple of possible avenues for intervention here. One of them is that we need a shared language, which we currently lack, among K-to-12 systems, university or post-secondary systems, and companies. I'm hearing the representative of the Welding Association speak in terms very similar to those used by the representative of the analogous body for mining, who I spoke to last week. I'm struck by how little we actually speak with these industry bodies, and how, when we do, we tend to use completely different language to describe the same things. In K-to-12 schools, the learning outcomes established by the provincial governments are not well understood by professors, who do very little communicating back to the K-to-12 systems about what's learned within university; and neither of those two systems speaks very well to companies and to the economy. We need a shared language across all three sectors: K to 12; post-secondary; and the private sector or the public sector, our employers.
        I think a useful example of this is the classification of instructional programs used by Statistics Canada, which provides shared language about the kinds of jobs that Canadians have. That framework allows us to collect data through the census, for example, about employment rates and about our labour force. What we need is something similar in the area of skills development that could be used both in education and in industry.
        The second point is that the federal government could support a system through which we could more adequately carry all of this information forward. It should be seen, if you step back from the system, as simply unacceptable that we do not know what our labour force knows. We're looking at a number of different platforms to catalogue and better understand what graduates actually know as they enter the workforce. When we're talking about the formulation of federal trade and industrial policy, I think that kind of data would be absolutely crucial in making good decisions. The federal government could certainly support a shared language and a shared dataset in terms of what graduates and people in a workforce know and can do. I think educational systems can contribute meaningfully to that.
        I think those are the two best areas I could suggest to interact with. We also have some excellent experiential learning folks at KPU, including Dr. Larissa Petrillo, who manages the 300 partnerships I mentioned before and who might be very good for you to speak to.
Thank you for your time.

Question and Answer Period

Question by Mr. Ramesh Sangha (Brampton Centre, Lib.)

Mr. Ramesh Sangha (Brampton Centre, Lib.):
My question is to Mr. David Burns. We have people who are marginalized and those who are disadvantaged, those who are immigrants or who have fallen into criminal problems and other things. You talked about your program with regard to skilled trades versus undergraduate programs, those based not on grades and skills but on competency and ability. Would you explain how your program is beneficial for disadvantaged groups and youth?
Dr. David Burns:
        There are two basic orientations to education policy in this regard. We can take the student body, in all of its diversity, and focus on getting them to fit within the constraints of the system that we have or we can attempt to change the system that we have, to permit a greater range of diversity. It is the latter that we're trying to do at KPU, and I think we need to do that more broadly across the country.
        For example, when we have new immigrants, they come with an extraordinary range of skills and abilities, but essentially the only mechanism we have to understand what they can do is a pretty cumbersome process to transfer their credentials, which is where you get all of these clichés about highly educated people performing low-skill jobs because their degree from their home country is not recognized here. An education system that respects the knowledge and capacities of these disadvantaged groups needs to be based on competencies. It needs to be based not on the credentials that you have but on what it is you're actually able to do, whether that is with credentials from here or from somewhere else. Having a broader sense of what their capacity is would empower and enable all of those marginalized persons.
Mr. Mark Warawa (Langley-Aldergrove, CPC):
Thank you, Chair.
Thank you to the witnesses. It's very interesting testimony.
I have a question for Mr. Burns at Kwantlen.  You have shared the importance of work integration, moving from education into employment. You have a campus in Langley, British Columbia. You have one in Cloverdale and one in Surrey. I believe you're in the Surrey campus now. Is that right?
Mr. David P Burns:
No, sir. We also have a campus, it should be said, in Richmond. I am at an office block in Burnaby. This is the only appropriate facility, I'm told.
Mr. Mark Warawa (Langley-Aldergrove, CPC):
Okay. Thank you for what you're doing. I would agree that it's very important that we know what skills we have. I congratulate you on your work and hope that you're quite successful. 
        In the school district of Abbotsford, to the east of you, is the Career Technical Centre with the University of the Fraser Valley and the Abbotsford school district. For a number of years, they've had this Career Technical Centre in which the secondary-school students are trained to prepare for employment. Have you looked at their example and their model, and whether or not that has been successful?
Mr. David P. Burns:
For that example, I would like to do some research before I speak specifically to it. I have not reviewed that individual program, though I believe that the provincial government examined it. Some of this work is done in collaboration with Jan Unwin of the B.C. Ministry of Education. I believe she's quite familiar with that program.
        The history of vocational programming within secondary schooling, however, has shown some mixed results. It depends very much on whether the focus is on a particular vocational path or whether it is broad preparation for adaptable employment. The model 10 to 15 years ago would have focused on specific careers. For example, the first literature review on the subject, which I did in the early 2000s, indicated that there were things like Microsoft training in high schools in Canada. On the surface, that looks quite effective, of course. When they graduate, they'll be certified to repair or maintain Microsoft-produced systems.
        Of course, one of the hard lessons we've learned with the way the economy has changed is that the jobs that the education system needs to prepare us for do not yet exist. In some cases, they're based on skills we don't even know we need yet. At the high school level, it's very difficult to prepare them adequately because the provincial curricula take so long to revise. If we're going to have it in the K-12 system at the secondary level, we need some sort of interaction with the higher educational system so that we can respond to labour market needs a little bit more quickly.
Mr. Dan Ruimy (Pitt Meadows—Maple Ridge, Lib.):
Thank you all very much for coming today. I'll repeat what everybody else says, which is that it's great information.
        I want to speak to you, Mr. Burns. I'm very interested in your program. There's the paper that says “4.0 GPA? Whatever. KPU to admit 6 Surrey students on portfolios alone”.
       We've talked a lot about Skills Link training programs. In fact, we have, in my riding of Pitt Meadows—Maple Ridge, Pathfinder Youth Centre, and for every single session that has a new intake of 30 students, I go and spend two hours with them.
       I'm concerned about how we move those people along the system. They have—for whatever reasons—been challenged, and they've fallen through the cracks. Some of the stuff that they're learning is great. Does your program attach to folks in that type of scenario? That's the first question.
Dr. David Burns:
That's an excellent question.
       There are two answers to it. One of them is that we actually do quite a lot of that separate and apart from the things that I'm currently testing. In British Columbia we have open access institutions for those members not from British Columbia, which are mandated to serve populations like that. So if there are ever persons in that situation who have fallen through the systemic cracks, KPU, in general, would like to hear from those persons. We do quite a lot to meet people where they are in terms of assessing what skills and abilities they bring to the university.
       My project is an effort to push that a bit forward. Ideally, if we can be clear about what competencies are required to succeed in university, then we can stop obsessing over how long they spent in K-to-12 schooling and start looking at what they actually know. There are some persons, first nations persons, for example, who have an extraordinary range of competencies and skills that just don't fit very well in the K-to-12 system. Those persons shouldn't have any fewer opportunities because they fit less well within the existing system.
Mr. Dan Ruimy (Pitt Meadows—Maple Ridge, Lib.):
       I'd like to jump onto what you just said. How do we evaluate the competencies? We go through about 30 new students every five weeks. Do the math; that's a lot of students in a year.  How do we evaluate their competencies? Is that something you already have or you are working on?
Dr. David Burns:
       The reason we have that small group and the press release for the newspaper article you mentioned is that we have several models for how this might work. Some of them are more appropriate to an open access institution like ours which wants to serve the population as they are, and some might be more suitable for institutions that have to be really selective. We're going to test a few of these models as we go through and engage the students in conversation about what can be done.
       For the students in that particular example, I have a couple of ideas for how that might work out. I'm looking forward in late summer to writing up some white papers for public consumption, identifying what can be done at different institutions for them.
Mr. Dan Ruimy (Pitt Meadows—Maple Ridge, Lib.):
Are you tracking everything you're doing right now?
Dr. David Burns:
       In policy terms, yes; in achievement and empirical terms, no. The six-student group is getting a tremendous amount of support, so we can't generalize from those six people to say they learned 10% more. The key is whether or not we can design a policy system that is accepting and respectful of diversity. Success, here, will be the formulation of policies rather than a statement that these students were somehow more successful.
Mr. Dan Ruimy (Pitt Meadows—Maple Ridge, Lib.):
       Okay. I also note, through a different study I've been working on, that polytechnics—versus universities—tend to trend now more towards delivering students with workplace skills. What can you tell me about the structure of your polytechnic universities that leads towards the development of workplace skills?
Dr. David Burns:
       Polytechnic universities are distinguished from general research-intensive universities in a couple of ways, and that's definitely one of them. Every single one of our programs has an experiential component, and that's really crucial, right? If you're creating a program, the question asked at every step of the committee process is how are they going to be practising this in real-world scenarios or in very similar simulations?
       We also have really extensive outreach to our industry partners and our communities to find out what they need as it's going on. For example, I work in policy research in education, so the students I'm teaching education policy to come with me to the ministry in Victoria to talk about policy reform. One of them recommended a change to one of our policy programs, and it's actually changing at the university level.
       Every time we do something, we attempt to bring students along with us to make a meaningful, substantive differences in that thing. We have a program whereby they go out into the prisons, for example, for learning experiences. We have experimental farms, where they take their horticulture knowledge and grow things.
Mr. Dan Ruimy (Pitt Meadows—Maple Ridge, Lib.):
       I have a last question. With that, are you tracking the skill set of those new students and matching them up with job skills in the field they're applying to? We see people who are graduating from universities or polytechnics and working at Tim Hortons, for instance. Are you tracking—
Dr. David Burns:
Absolutely, yes.
Mr. Dan Ruimy (Pitt Meadows—Maple Ridge, Lib.):
—and what are you doing with that information?
Dr. David Burns:
       The first thing I ask all the students who work on research with me is, “Where are you going?” Then we have a conversation about how to get them there. For the incoming student group, which was just today selected—I'm getting that information later on; it was blind up until just this morning. We'll meet with them in the next couple of weeks to say, “Okay, what do you want to do in the world and what problems are you solving?” We'll then write backwards from that a story of what kinds of skills they need to accomplish that objective.
The Chair:
Thank you very much.
Mr. Mark Warawa (Langley-Aldergrove, CPC):
        Chair, I want to ask some questions about Kwantlen Polytechnic and the Lord Tweedsmuir program.  Has Kwantlen been working with or touched base with the secondary school just up the street.  David, I think you mentioned you were working with the secondary schools in Surrey. Is Lord Tweedsmuir one of those?
Dr. David Burns:
        Right now the sample is blind, as I said, up until just this morning, when the paperwork in Surrey was finished. Through the superintendent, Jordan Tinney, and Antonio Vendramin, who's a district principal for communicating student learning, I'm working with the individual schools. Between now and January, we will actually be doing site visits. I believe Tweedsmuir is one of the schools we will be going to, but I'm not certain of it yet because the students themselves haven't been named until today.
Mr. Mark Warawa (Langley-Aldergrove, CPC):
Okay. Thank you.
       Part of the equation is going to be where the future jobs are going to be with artificial intelligence. Where jobs will be in the future, in short order, could actually change dramatically with artificial intelligence.  Is that part of the equation, where the jobs will be over the next five, 10, or 20 years?
Dr. David Burns:
       The recent history of educational policy in Canada tells us we're not very good at predicting that. We've gone through at least three waves of attempting to ascertain what the labour market will look like in 10 years, and in each of those cases, we have been largely mistaken.
       When I was young, everyone was going to be a computer programmer. Then a good set of software tools, the Microsoft Suite and so forth, was developed, and all of a sudden we didn't need those programmers because we had good programs. Then we moved into apps, and you're starting to see kids today learning how to do Swift development on Apple technologies and so forth. We didn't see any of that coming, at least from the educational perspective.
       I'm interested in the students' flexibility in their learning, and their ability to articulate and apply that learning to unexpected contexts, because in a certain sense, any prediction about where artificial intelligence will lead us is going to be quite fraught. As an educator, I need to make sure my students are ready for things I do not see coming, and that's very much part of what we're trying to do.
       We have a program we're bringing forward right now on some of the new forms of advanced manufacturing and machine maintenance that we require in the new economy, but even that has to be very flexible, because that area is changing much more quickly than public systems can adapt.


A quick conclusion by the Chair, Mr. Bryan May (Cambridge, Lib.)

The Chair:
Thank you very much.
       I see the clock at 5:30. Unfortunately, that brings our first round of witnesses to an end here today. I would like to thank each of you for taking the time to be here with us and to share your knowledge on this issue.  As I said, we are right at the very beginning. We are looking forward to wrapping up this study hopefully sometime in March, and of course sharing that with each of you.
Thank you to all my colleagues.
Thank you to the folks to the left and right of me, and the folks in the booth and behind me.
Have a nice evening. The meeting is adjourned.