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North America Needs Talent

Good morning! Thank you for that kind introduction.

It’s great to be here at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, in this beautiful city of Edmonton . . . and it’s especially good to be here with all of you . . . leaders who are energized to address some of the most pressing issues of our time when it comes to learning and employment.

I’m honored to participate in this year’s conference not only because of the import of those issues, but also because of the fact that 2017 marks the nation’s sesquicentennial.

I’m a regular visitor to Canada, a great nation in many ways. Celebrating the milestones of successful democracies is something we should never get tired of, and I am honored by the company in which I find myself as a visitor during this momentous year . . . President Obama is due in Montreal in a few days, and Prince Charles will be visiting Ottawa soon thereafter. So when you go home after the conference, you can tell your friends you also saw Merisotis in Edmonton!

Seriously, what I love about celebrating these kinds of milestones is that they can be used as occasions to take stock and focus on creative ways to improve the status quo. . .

Not unlike what we’re doing here at the conference.

In my view, this conference gives us an opportunity to challenge what is and work on what can be . . . to fix a problem and talk about ways, big and small, that we can develop and deploy the talent that employers need to fill the jobs that workers want.

And when Nobina asked me to speak here today on those very issues, she urged me to talk about the urgent need for Canada—like the U.S.—to develop its talent pool.

Now I want to be clear up front that I’m not here to tell you about the great American model. I’ve spent much of my career admiring what Canada has done to prepare its citizens for work and for life through a variety of learning institutions. I’m especially impressed with what all of you do in the colleges and institutes that make up the public polytechnic sector. We have a great deal to learn from the polytechnics model in the U.S.

But talent development and deployment is something I think both countries need to learn more about and act upon, given the rising demand for talent. That’s one reason why I wrote a book called “America Needs Talent.” I’ve had the great fortune of talking about the book at nearly 100 venues across the U.S., and in several other countries, over the last year or so. Today I’m not going to get into a lot of the detail about the book itself—we can certainly cover my thoughts on things like creating urban-based talent hubs or any of the other big ideas I tried to advance in the book when we get to the Q&A section after my remarks. Instead, I’d like to talk specifically about why talent development and deployment is so important right now to Canada and the U.S., and how postsecondary learning needs to play a central role in that process.

Now I know a lot of pop culture will tell us that “America’s Got Talent,” and that “Canada’s Got Talent.” TV shows are great, of course. But for reasons I’ll explain in a moment, preparing for my visit with you today gave me an opportunity to reflect on what I wrote. And after much thought, I sort of wish I had called the book “North America Needs Talent.”

You see, I know that our countries are different in many ways—including our respective postsecondary learning systems. But they also share many similarities, and our need for talent is one of them.

Simply put, the economies of our nations cannot thrive if the workforce is not sufficiently skilled to fill the jobs of today and tomorrow. And labor market experts are all but unanimous in saying that a high school diploma alone simply can’t convey those skills. Credentials—degrees, certificates, industry certifications, and other valuable credentials are the currency of the realm in conveying to employers that our workforce has the right skills, abilities, and knowledge.

Consider this simple fact from recent U.S. experience. According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, of the 11.6 million American jobs created since the Great Recession ended in late 2010, 11.5 million—99 percent—went to workers who had at least some post-high school education.

11.5 million of the 11.6 million jobs created in the post-recession economy required postsecondary education

Let me repeat that: 11.5 million of the 11.6 million jobs created in the post-recession economy required postsecondary education.

Data from the OECD show that in Canada, adults with tertiary education experience had unemployment rates less than one-half of those with secondary or less than secondary education. These employment data play out in different ways depending on the province, of course, but the overall trend is clear.

In Canada, more than 70% of the top paying jobs are in fields like health care, financial services, logistics and production management, and other fields that require postsecondary credentials. Our friends in Mexico have seen similar trends, making this truly a North American imperative.

Evidence of how this plays out is everywhere. Look at the compensation data—the increasing wages that employers are willing to pay for people with talent to do jobs that are increasingly in demand in the global knowledge economy. Look at the social data showing why people with talent perform better as citizens and community leaders when they have higher levels of developed talent. Talent is the key to our shared success in the modern world.

So, sure, maybe Canada’s got talent, but not enough of it, and not the right kind for today’s world. Of course, a television show’s definition of “talent” has a lot to do with singing and dancing—certainly one element of what we might call talent, to be sure, and no doubt a kind of talent that some of you have enjoyed . . . or endured.

But to me, “talent” is more than a single ability or skill. It is a reflection of the synergies that result when an individual acquires a mix of capabilities that lead to prosperity in his or her career and personal life. It’s what happens when you take knowledge, skills, abilities, values, interests, and personality traits, and hone them through education, training or experience in ways that impact not only the individual, but society at large.

To break that down a bit, talent, to me, includes knowledge of particular subject matter. . .

  • Skills, such as critical thinking, that enable an individual to use his or her knowledge to solve problems . . .
  • Abilities, such as memory, creativity, and reasoning . . .
  • Values, including achievement and authority . . .
  • Interests that dictate the environment where a person prefers to locate . . .
  • And personality traits or patterns of behavior, thought or emotion.

Now, the good news is that most of the world knows that Canadians are doing a pretty darned good job of developing talent, at least if we measure that achievement by looking at rates of educational attainment.

As you undoubtedly know, Canada ranks first in adult attainment of postsecondary credentials among countries ranked by the OECD.

amFrom the U.S. perspective, we at Lumina Foundation have committed ourselves to an ambitious national goal for educational attainment. By 2025, we want 60 percent of American adults to have a high-quality, postsecondary credential that prepares them to earn a spot in the middle class. Since we began this work at Lumina in 2008, we’ve now seen 40 U.S. states adopt similar goals, as well as many other higher education, business and civic leaders stepping up to set and achieve their own educational attainment goals. Lumina is working closely with many of these leaders and states, developing strategies to actually make the goals achievable.

Well, if you apply that benchmark here in Canada, it’s clear that this nation may already be there … or at least nearly there. I say “may already be there” because I’ve seen varying statistics—the National Household Survey has found that 64 percent of adults had postsecondary “qualifications,” while the OECD more recently placed the number at about 52 percent—so it’s tough to say for sure. It’s likely that the difference is in what credentials, exactly, are included in each count.

Even at the lower figure, Canada’s attainment exceeds that of most countries in the world. Our attainment rate in the U.S., as measured by both degrees and certificates, is just under 46%. So clearly you’ve been doing something right.

Canada recognizes the great value of and demand for technical and technological credentials better than virtually any other country in the world. And I know this as a fact, because I’ve studied your model in my work in the U.S., and in work I’ve done earlier in my career working in places like South Africa, where the polytechnic model thrived for decades. Your institutions succeed because the learning offerings regularly shift based on employers’ needs, and because your overarching goal is to educate for employment.

I consider this a huge positive . . . and I commend you, because I know this has not been without strife.

We at Lumina recognize that every nation’s economy needs an array of workers with an array of talent that is articulated as knowledge, skills and abilities. And these skills, abilities, and knowledge must be developed by an array of high-quality programs and experiences and represented by an array of credentials.

Only with that array of credentials do we in North America have the chance to meet our goals for postsecondary attainment.

Since 2014, we’ve been counting high-quality certificates and other credentials besides degrees in the U.S. toward the 60% American goal because we see them as one of several keys to the middle class for many workers. Lumina Foundation actually had to collect these data independent of government, because the statement that I just made about non-degree credentials isn’t as universally acknowledged as it should be.

Now, I understand that some in Canada, like in the U.S., may consider technical or vocational programs to be a second-tier education, something less than a university degree.

As you well know, there are some who say that Canada needs more degreed individuals, particularly those with Ph.D.s.

Whether this is cause for concern or whether this means that Canada does a better job of meeting the diverse needs of employers is a question for you and your university counterparts—indeed, for the entire country—to sort out.

But allow me to say that you’ve got some great opportunities to build on what you’ve already accomplished no matter what.

First, you’ll be assisted in that decision-making process by information you glean from the ever-evolving job market.

For example, what credentials are required for jobs that attract too few applicants? On the other hand, what credentials are held by applicants who can’t find jobs? Do the data substantiate or conflict with the call for more university degrees?

And because the job market is ever-evolving, your answer today may differ from your answer tomorrow.

Second, Canada’s well-conceived immigration policy—which differs markedly from that in the United States—helps the country lure in-demand talent to its borders.

For a number of years, the United States’ dysfunctional, hard-to-navigate immigration system has prevented talented, foreign-born workers from making America their home.

If you can believe it, the U.S. Congress has failed for 27 years to fix the system. We’ve had Republican and Democratic presidents and Republican and Democratic congresses over that time, as well as periods of total government control by one party and periods of split control.

Our government hasn’t been able to get it done.

What’s more, the presidential campaign of 2016 laid bare the fact that many of my fellow citizens seem to have forgotten that ours is a nation built by immigrants.

And given the outcome of the election, even those would-be immigrants who have not been banned outright likely question whether a move to the United States is wise.

Part of the challenge has been that the immigration system in my country is tilted more toward reuniting families. Data for the most recent fiscal year show that green cards were provided to 226,000 members of extended families, compared to 140,000 people who were coming to fill jobs.

I’m certainly in favor of family reunification, unequivocally. It’s a humane policy, to be sure, but unlike your system, which prioritizes immigrants who possess in-demand skills or who already have a job offer, it does not help us solve our need for talent.

As the New York Times noted recently, the number of international students who come to Canada to study surged 92 percent from 2008 to 2015. That influx, encouraged by an affordable set of postsecondary learning offerings and a path to citizenship, is a smart way to develop the talent this nation’s country needs.

Third, this question is sort of the opposite of what we in the United States are asking. We are, instead, more focused on the idea that our system is broken.

An education-oriented organization and website called The Hechinger Report recently asked if university degrees were outdated. The Hechinger article said that “Even as degrees, from associates to doctorates, proliferate, they are joined—maybe trumped —by thousands of résumé-worthy credentials from shorter, non-degree programs.”

Those “résumé-worthy credentials” have been a focus of Lumina’s work for several years. We recognize that talent can be developed in settings other than a degree-granting university. But not all educational programs are created equal, nor are all credentials.

I’m not talking about college credentials versus university degrees. As I’ve already said, I see a place for both, and it’s not really my place to try to weigh in on the appropriate balance for Canada.

No, I’m talking about the quality of the individual programs. I’m talking about closer alignment between education and employer. I’m talking about building a system that serves the learner, whether a teenager straight out of high school or an adult learner who must update his or her skills to remain employable.

And I’m talking about finding ways to assure an employer that a certificate or badge or degree has meaning, that the applicant seeking a position has the skill implied by the credential and desired by the employer.

As I mentioned, Lumina has been working on these issues. I’d like to talk about two approaches that we find promising for the future of postsecondary education and for meeting our talent needs.

The first is something many of you know a lot about—competency-based learning.

As the experts in the room can attest, this concept values all high-quality learning, wherever it is achieved. That might be in a formal course that is taught in a classroom or online. Or it might be on the job or in a volunteer position with the community theater.

The goal of the learning experience, wherever or however it takes place, is to achieve specified learning outcomes. The learner moves through the experience at his or her own pace. Once he or she has mastered a skill, or competency—and proven that mastery—the learner may move on to another competency.

To prove mastery of the competency, the learner may take a test, compile a portfolio, participate in a simulation or be observed by the instructor in a work environment.

We hear from learners—especially adults who have spent time in the workplace—that competency-based learning validates them.

Think about it. For many adult learners, it must be deeply frustrating –perhaps even demeaning—to be someone who has been in the workplace for years, has learned a thing or two and is savvy enough to be seeking a new credential to update his skills or prepare herself for a new position. Yet often this person is treated as if he or she knows nothing . . . brings nothing to the table.

Competency-based learning can change that.

We’ve also heard from employers, who often are challenged by résumés with inexact or varying labels for applicants’ skills and classroom grades that can be interpreted in any number of ways. They want to be able to trust what a credential means . . . and having that credential based on competency-based learning is one way of doing that.

We at Lumina think the entire postsecondary learning system needs to increasingly focus on competency. We know that it’s beneficial to everyone.

Even institutions that use the traditional credit-hour system to award its certificates or degrees can adapt their offerings to focus on competencies. In fact, many of those institutions, like Southern New Hampshire University, are the leaders in competency-based learning in the U.S.

A growing number of institutions have adopted full and comprehensive competency-based programs. To ensure that these are of high quality, the Competency-Based Education Network recently issued quality standards. The network, also known as C-BEN, comprises 30 American colleges and universities and four public systems with 82 campuses. C-BEN spent the past year researching and developing those standards, which can apply to all comprehensive, competency-based programs, regardless of the model used.

We’d also like to see institutions of higher learning recognize a learner’s credentials and give credit for them when the learner seeks a higher-level credential or a degree.

Paving a smoother pathway between, say, a certificate and a two-year diploma or a two-year diploma and a bachelor’s degree would encourage learners to seek higher learning.

The second approach to these critical matters of postsecondary learning is to adopt—across the entire spectrum of credential-granting organizations—transparent and common language so that everyone– prospective learners, institutions, and employers—understands what a particular credential means.

Just as an employer may have difficulty relying on a course grade or GPA to determine whether an applicant is qualified for a particular job, so may the employer find it difficult to decipher the meaning behind a credential. At Lumina, we’re supporting an effort to create that transparency through an organization called Credential Engine.

One centerpiece project of Credential Engine is an online registry for all types of learning credentials. Right now, the registry is in its formative stage, what we call “sandbox mode.” Together in that web-based sandbox, more than 100 different credential issuers, from community colleges and universities to workforce-based organizations, industry certification bodies and labor unions, are now entering information about credentials they offer. As someone at one of these organizations enters information, he or she is walked through the process using common credential transparency description language—that is, vocabulary that describes key features of the credential and the credentialing organization and other information that enables the end user to determine the quality, value, and applicability of the credential.

The registry is not yet open to the public but likely will be, as a test site, by late fall. Ultimately the goal is to include degrees, certificates, certifications, apprenticeships, licenses, badges and more—all types of credentials offered by universities, colleges, schools, industry and professional organizations, certification organizations, labor unions, employers and the military. All of these various credentials will be described by a common language and displayed in a searchable format on the online registry.

We anticipate that developers will create apps that are tailor-made for different users—much like Travelocity or Orbitz or Expedia are used in the travel industry. In the credentials arena, we would expect apps for learners . . . career counselors . . . industry sectors . . . workforce boards and agencies . . . as well as schools, colleges, and universities.

The first prototype app is called Work It. It enables the registry participants who are testing the system to see how their information will be presented. Eventually, Work It will enable any user to search the registry.

Stay tuned as the kinks are worked out, the registry is brought to scale and apps are developed. The prototype is promising and I’m optimistic that Credential Engine will bring a new and much-needed level of transparency to higher education.

Now before I wrap this up, let me add just one more thought that I’d like you to ponder at this conference, and beyond.

As your institutions hone your programs and consider the solutions I’ve mentioned today, keep in mind that all countries—even those like Canada that enjoy a relatively high rate of postsecondary attainment, must continually ask the question: Who is being left out or left behind?

It is a question for us all to both ponder and act upon. After all, the best way to measure the success of a nation—perhaps even one’s basic worth as a person—is to focus on how we serve those who need us most … those who are most vulnerable. This is especially true for racial and ethnic minorities and other underserved populations. For success to be complete—for it to be lasting and real—it must be shared, equitably.

I thank you for working to create that shared success among your students … and for your good work to help bring learning and employment together in ways that impact all Canadians, economically and socially.

Thank you very much.

Kate Snedeker
North America Needs Talent
North America Needs Talent
June 1, 2017

Full keynote address by Jamie Merisotis at the Annual Conference of Polytechnics Canada. Q&A session starts at 25:53.