Thursday, April 16, 2015

Vocational training vs. Habermas term papers

The Register reports that Google has a new patent for coordinating the actions of individual robots. This announcement seems in keeping with other recent concerns about the future of work and employment. Paul Krugman, citing  a NBER paper, takes umbrage with the idea that "advancing technology would mean ever-growing demand for highly educated workers." He notes that "human beings would continue to be wanted for jobs that require common sense, including many forms of manual labor." The NBER paper notes that there was a "strong demand for skills [associated with high educational skill] in the decades leading up to 2000" but that that since then there has been a "decline in demand... even as the supply of high education workers continues to grow."

It seems that traditional higher education doesn't necessarily lead to better jobs:

" the Information Revolution of the late 20th century was a spectacular but only partial success. Simple information processing became faster and cheaper than anyone had imagined, but the once-confident artificial intelligence movement went from defeat to defeat. As Marvin Minsky, one of the movement's founders, despairingly remarked, 'What people vaguely call common sense is actually more intricate than most of the technical expertise we admire.' And it takes common sense to deal with the physical world -- which is why, even at the end of the 21st century, there are still no robot plumbers."

The comments echo an essay by Krugman from 1996 entitled "White Collars Turn Blue". In the essay Krugman describes the world of the future, particularly the role of education. He notes that "the eroding payoff of higher education created a crisis in education itself. Why should a student put herself through four years of college and several years of postgraduate work to acquire academic credentials with little monetary value? These days, jobs that require only 6 or 12 months of vocational training -- paranursing, carpentry, household maintenance and so on -- pay nearly as much if not more than a job that requires a master's degree, and pay more than one requiring a Ph.D."

In Krugman's future there is still, however, a role for elite institutions: "Today a place like Harvard is, as it was in the 19th century, more of a social institution than a scholarly one -- a place for children of the wealthy to refine their social graces and befriend others of their class."

Krugman seems to be quite skeptical of traditional education. As DeClou notes, there might be some fundamental benefits to higher education including better social engagement, less involvement with crime, etc. But the benefits do not necessarily translated into better job outcomes or employability. There is still a need for basic skills, General Knowledge-Worker Preparedness, and pico-productivity. How do we get there? Learning outcomes assessment: a practitioner's handbook, published by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario certainly provides some great ideas for ensuring that outcomes are actually aligned with job requirements. One could argue, for example, that if the most likely outcome for a philosophy major is to work in call center, than the program should include the development of the skills involved in speaking to people, resolving issues, etc. The program should extend beyond the YAHTP paradigm (Yet Another Habermas Term Paper) to include assessment based on verbal communication.

This all has a very vocational feel to it... as it should. The great thing about vocational training is that there are very clear outcomes. People either get jobs or they don't; if they don't get jobs then the program folds. A key aspect of vocation training is identifying the necessary skills involved in a particular job or occupation.

A document from Alberta Workforce Essential Skills identifies a variety of Workplace Essential Skills (WES): "the skills that enable people to do their work". The document introduces a set of steps for using the skills:

  • step 1. form a steering committee
  • step 2. identify the occupations learners will enter
  • step 3. identify the workplace essential tasks required for these occupations
  • step 4. incorporate the identified WES tasks into curriculum
  • step 5. gather authentic workplace materials
  • step 6. prepare instructors to use the curriculum

Employment and Social Development Canada provides some visibility into Essential Skills Profiles .

There are no "Research Analysts" listed among the occupations but we do have some that come close.

  • Information systems analysts and consultants
  • Authors and Writers
  • Editors
  • Professional Occupations in Business Services to Management
  • Computer Network Technicians
  • Journalists
  • Contact Centre Agents
  • Producers, Directors, Choreographers and Related Occupations
  • Database Analysts and Data 
  • Administrators
  • Web Designers and Developers
  • Desktop Publishing Operators and Related Occupations
  • Small Business Counselors
  • Archivists

The skills are broken out across some core areas:

  • reading
  • document use
  • writing
  • numeracy
    • money math
    • scheduling, budgeting, and accounting math
    • measurement and calculation math
    • data analysis math
    • numerical estimation
  • oral communication
  • thinking
    • problem solving
    • decision making
    • critical thinking
    • job task planning and organizing
    • own job planning and organizing
    • planning and organizing for others
    • significant use of memory
    • finding information
  • digital technology
  • additional skills
    • working with others
    • continous learning

I'm actually not sure what to do with all of this stuff but it all speaks to somehow knowing what kinds of tasks are required for particular job roles. Ideally, to improve GKwP, we need to provide training on these requirements.


Beaudry, Green, and Sand. 2013. The great reversal in the demand for skill and cognitive tasks. NBER Working Paper no. 18901.

Lindsay DeClou (2014). Social returns: assessing the benefits of higher education. Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, Issue Paper no. 18.

Learning outcomes assessment: a practitioner's handbook, published by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.


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