Back to top

CAUT Bulletin Archives

November 1999

Insightful Analysis Explodes the Education-Job Gap Myth

Terry Wotherspoon

The Education-Jobs Gap: Underemployment or Economic Democracy

David W. Livingstone, Toronto: Garamond Press, 1999; 360 pp; paper $29.95 CA.
The relationship between formal education and work has been a subject of increasing public scrutiny throughout the twentieth century and one of the driving forces in recent demands for educational reforms. Individuals face increasing challenges to select from a diverse array of educational endeavours promoted under the guise of lifelong learning in order to keep pace with rapidly changing job markets, revolutionary developments in information technologies and new global linkages.

Just as learners are exhorted to pursue sufficient levels (and the right kinds) of education to meet labour force requirements, educators are expected to ensure their pedagogical offerings are tailored to produce the kinds of skills and workers that will enhance productivity and competitiveness in the new global economy.

School-work connections are most commonly understood, implicitly or explicitly, through variants of human capital theory. This approach, positing rational linkages between education and job choices, possesses an overwhelming allure because of its straightforward, common sense logic -- more education in current or relevant forms means better jobs, innovative production and information systems, and therefore a greater return for both individuals and the economy as a whole.

Conversely, lack of education or inappropriate educational paths limit individual opportunities and undermine economic growth. Even the discomfort felt by many educators -- particularly university teachers in the social sciences and humanities, but those in other fields and levels as well -- at recent directions their educational institutions have taken to restructure planning, job expectations and resource allocation, is tempered by awareness that critical changes are necessary if students are to be equipped for twenty-first century realities.

David Livingstone, in The Education-Jobs Gap, offers a powerful critique of the myth that we are engaged in the delivery and pursuit of the wrong kinds of education for the types of jobs demanded by the so-called knowledge economy. Given the tremendous range and depth of educational activities and credentials that pervade people's experiences in post-industrial societies, Livingstone argues we should be more concerned with the absence of meaningful employment than with educational deficiencies if we are to understand the mismatch between education and work.

Far from having too little education, people in Canada and other privileged nations have accumulated extensive educational qualifications and experiences, as revealed through both major empirical surveys and people's accounts of their own experiences. Growing involvement in the hierarchical "pyramid" of standardized formal learning endeavours is augmented by significant involvement among people from all social backgrounds in the less visible "iceberg" of more voluntary informal learning activities to an extent that we are just beginning to comprehend.

Induced by an absence of jobs, lack of opportunity to put their knowledge to work, and personal desires for self-improvement, individuals engage in ever-increasing learning processes only to encounter the likelihood that further obstacles will sidetrack their quest for meaningful employment.

The gap between education and jobs is not a singular phenomenon but, rather, manifests itself in at least six different forms. Most of these (the talent use gap, structural unemployment, involuntary reduced employment and subjective underemployment) are a consequence of people's inability to find work, to gain recognition for the credentials and capacities they possess, or to use their skills in the jobs they do have.

Two dimensions of education-work discrepancies -- the performance gap and the credential gap -- can be a consequence of under-education, when people do not have the knowledge or skills their jobs require, but these phenomena, too, are more likely to occur when people are not given the opportunity to engage fully their capabilities within employment settings.

Livingstone argues that analysis of contradictory dynamics that pervade education-work relationships is necessary for an understanding of how knowledge comes to be wasted on such a large scale in advanced capitalist economies. Social contestation over the production, valuation and control of knowledge has accompanied an explosion in the amounts and types of information to which people have access.

In an economic context dependent upon private appropriation of knowledge and material commodities, global competition and the continuous drive for enhanced productivity require innovative, flexible workers and workplace practices. Consequently, profitable investment and production are associated with the ongoing upgrading of workers' general educational levels at the same time that entrepreneurs or employers seek to control or market actual working knowledge.

These tensions take the form of struggles over training, credentials, access to information and appropriation of knowledge for specific purposes. However, the same pressures lead to continual restructuring of jobs and workplace practices, making many forms of knowledge and skills redundant or beyond the scope of what is performed within specific jobs.

The insights developed throughout The Education-Jobs Gap carry mixed messages for educators. Formal education will remain vital as long as employers and learners value educational credentials and experiences as essential steps on the road to social and economic success.

However, both market and popular forces carry with them considerable potential to alter educational practices and relationships in ways that may be unsettling for educators and the students with whom they work. The promotion by private interests of initiatives to commodify, rationalize and control knowledge-related practices is likely to produce a plethora of alternative educational options along with further reorientation and streamlining of existing institutional programs.

As education is restructured, public demands for "useful" types of knowledge related to job prospects coexist with fiscal or programmatic barriers that may limit access to educational services, affecting most seriously persons from the least privileged social groups. The impact of the education-jobs gap on diverse groups, notably based on gender, race, and regional factors, warrants considerably greater investigation than is possible in a book of this nature.

At the same time, individuals across social groups are equipping themselves through informal learning situations with life skills, technical knowledge and other competencies that formal educational institutions have been reluctant to embrace or recognize. The explosion of educational directions and possibilities challenges educators to incorporate into their activities meaningful and equitable ways in which to acknowledge the varied forms of educational interests and experiences that people have.

In this regard, educators must remain vigilant to educational practices that promote control of knowledge and learning processes by a few and to promote the kinds of educational relationships that promote growth, empowerment and secure futures among all social participants.

For its clearly presented analysis of the nature and place of education in democratic societies, the book warrants close examination by all educators. Recently awarded the John Porter Award for its outstanding contributions to Canadian sociology, the book also deserves much wider readership than its academic format will likely reach. Because the analysis extends beyond critique and empirical research findings to a discussion of alternative economic scenarios, it provides a useful stimulus to generate debate over the kinds of educational and employment futures we choose to work towards.

Terry Wotherspoon is a professor of sociology at the University of Saskatchewan, and author of The Sociology of Education in Canada: Critical Perspectives, Oxford.