Bridging the gaps in employability for social science and humanities academics

Bridging the gaps in employability for social science and humanities academics

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Congress 2021 blog edition 

By Claire Kroening, University of Alberta human geography alumna and communications professional 

“We have an underutilization of talent in Canada; we produce exceptional [social science and humanities] graduates, but don’t do a great job hiring them,” said Gail Bowkett, member of The/La Collaborative and panellist in today’s discussion on bridging employment gaps for SSH grads. Indeed, the Canadian landscape of work is saturated with employers who want university-educated employees, and university grads who remain locked out of public and private sector employment due to a perceived lack of ‘skills’ and ‘experience’. 

Members of The/La Collaborative discussed how to address this problem by transforming the ways we build talent, capacity and employability in SSH students and how to do so while preserving the research integrity and foundational knowledge of the disciplines. The discussion centred around their 2021 report, Foundational Skills And What Social Sciences and Humanities Need to Know.  

Determining the skills grads have and the skills employers want  

The “skills gap” we often hear about is more or less a difference in perception among employers and academics. For example, students think their communications skills are clearly demonstrated by how well they write an essay. Employers think good communication skills is whether a prospective employee can write a memo – and if they’ve written one before.  

The real question to ask is can the candidate write a memo. A graduate student must be able to articulate to the hiring manager that they can write, and the manager must see the transferability of their skills. The same goes for other transferable skills students gain during their degree.  

Additional training 

Sometimes new grads do lack skills, and The/La Collaborative said this gap should be addressed through integration of experiential learning programs/and or additional training at universities.  

Examples include offering work-experience, internship, and placement programs. Teaching courses that focus on employability. Integrating community service-learning projects into certain courses. Offering supplementary after-degrees, extension programs, diplomas and certificates.  

Panellists noted there are challenges on both sides to creating successful work-integrated learning programs. On one hand, academia can struggle to see the relevance of these programs, and on the other, employers don’t necessarily have the capacity to run them. There also tends to be risk-aversion by the employer because relationships may be new.  

Specifically for PhDs, a tenure position is not guaranteed. PhD programs in SSH focus predominantly on the dissertation, and although some argue it should...a dissertation doesn’t carry the same weight and value among public and private employers as it does in academia. The/La Collaborative recommends that the next step for bolstering employability of PhD students is to offer opportunities to augment their experience – offer courses in project management, HR management, emotional intelligence, and leadership and innovation management.   

Adopting a collaborative attitude for success 

As panellists noted, academic culture can be individualistic – academics learn to take and keep creative control over their work. This individualistic psychology though, as Sandra Lapointe argued, is something to overcome to succeed in the collaborative work environments that dominate the public and private sector.  

They recommend interdisciplinary and intra-disciplinary collaborations in research at the undergrad and graduate level. Doing so can provide students with opportunities to develop and practice collaborative skills in interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral settings.  

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Dr. Loleen Berdahl of the University of Saskatchewan, Wendy Cukier, Professor at Ted Rogers School of Management and Director of Diversity Ins, and Tim Wilson, Associate Vice President, Research Programs at SSHRC, presented “Foundational Skills and What SSH Need to Know” in an event hosted by The Collaborative.