Bridging the Skills Gap – Katherine Lithgow
Sydney Harbour Bridge

There’s been a lot of discussion in media and higher education about the skills, or lack of skills, our students have when they graduate from our universities. Politicians, the public, and even some of our colleagues have questioned whether universities are the best vehicles to help post-secondary students bridge the gap between high school and the working world of the 21st century.

Many of the arguments centre around what they call ‘the skills gap’ and claim that today’s graduates do not have the skills necessary to meet the needs for the 21st century work environment. For example, released results from a national survey which found that only 1 in 5 employers (19 per cent) believe academic institutions are adequately preparing students for roles needed within their organizations.

Of course, there are others who have argued that there isn’t a ‘skills gap’ to bridge. In 2013, for example, leading economist, Don Drummond, reported that he couldn’t find “a shred of evidence that Canada has a serious mismatch between skills and jobs” contradicting what Prime Minister Stephen Harper has declared as “an urgent national priority.”

Whether a skills gap exists or not, we do know two things:

  1. Students and parents have their eye on post-graduate job prospects, regardless of the degree.
  2. Employers report that they look for specific skills when hiring new graduates and these preferred skills are common across most, if not all, occupations.

A report by the Canadian Association of Career Educators and Employers (2013) identified communication, teamwork, analytical, strong work ethic, and problem solving as the top 5 preferred skills that employers seek when hiring new grads. These same five skills have been consistently identified in a number of similar surveys conducted across Canada and in the United States with slight variations in the order. Employers, then, appear to be looking for, what we call Professional Skills / Essential Employability Skills/Transferable Skills regardless of the degree designation.

Now, we might ask ourselves, “What does this have to do with me? It’s not my job to get students jobs”. And that’s true. And we also might say, “Well, I teach cutting edge research and best practices in my discipline.” And that is fine, too. And we might even say, “We don’t have time to ‘cover soft skills’ – it’s not our job to teach these.” Well, that’s not entirely true. Because, in 2005, the Ontario Council of Academic Vice-Presidents (OCAV) developed a set of Undergraduate Degree Level Expectations (UDLEs) for all universities in the province. The UDLEs are a set of guidelines that “elaborate the intellectual and creative development of students and the acquisition of relevant skills that have been widely, yet implicitly, understood. At their most basic, the six UDLEs articulated by OCAV are as follows:

  1. Depth and breadth of knowledge
  2. Knowledge of methodologies
  3. Application of knowledge
  4. Communication skills
  5. Awareness of limits of knowledge
  6. Autonomy and professional capacity

The University of Waterloo has added two more UDLEs:

  1. Experiential learning
  2. Diversity

Take a look at what the undergraduate degree level expectations are for UDLE 4 and UDLE 6.

  Baccalaureate/Bachelor’s Degree Baccalaureate/Bachelor’s Degree: Honours
UDLE 4. Communication Skills … the ability to communicate accurately and reliably, orally and in writing to a range of audiences. … the ability to communicate information, arguments, and analyses accurately and reliably, orally and in writing to a range of audiences.
UDLE 6.Autonomy and Professional Capacity a) qualities and transferable skills necessary for further study, employment, community involvement and other activities requiring:·   the exercise of personal responsibility and decision-making;  ·   working effectively with others;b) the ability to identify and address their own learning needs in changing circumstances and to select an appropriate program of further study; andc) behaviour consistent with academic integrity and social responsibility.



a) qualities and transferable skills necessary for further study, employment, community involvement and other activities requiring:·    the exercise of initiative, personal responsibility and accountability in both personal and group contexts;·    working effectively with others; ·    decision-making in complex contexts;b) the ability to manage their own learning in changing circumstances, both within and outside the discipline and to select an appropriate program of further study; andc) behaviour consistent with academic integrity and social responsibility.

These expectations are the very skills that top the list of skills that employers are looking for, those Professional Skills / Essential Employability Skills/Transferable Skills, regardless of the degree designation.

I’d say we do a good job addressing UDLE 1, 2, 3, & perhaps 5 – those UDLEs that focus on dissemination of knowledge. Through tests, exams, essays, projects, and for some students, theses or capstones and presentations, we provide opportunities for students demonstrate gains they are making in these knowledge-related areas. We explicitly ask them to demonstrate these gains, and we give them grades for demonstrating achievement in these areas. Assigning grades lets students know that these things are valued and worth learning.

What we might not do as often, or as well, is let students know that the skills and attributes outlined under Autonomy and Professional Capacity (UDLE 6) and Communication (UDLE 4) are also valued.

  • Communication to wide audience (not just the instructor!)
  • Exercise of initiative
  • Personal responsibility and accountability to self and others
  • Decision-making
  • Effective teamwork
  • Problem-solving

These are the competencies and skills that we presuppose student have or are acquiring while they are working on what we will eventually mark. We expect students to value these things, but if we looked at what gets marked in courses, which in turn translates to what gets valued by the students, I think we’d agree that these transferable/professional skills often are not assigned marks, or if they are, they count for a small portion of the overall grade.

This doesn’t mean that students do not develop or acquire these skills. But, because we don’t explicitly draw students’ attention to the fact that they are developing these skills, they often remain invisible to our students. And yet, these invisible, often unacknowledged or undervalued skills are precisely the extra-degree skills that employers want to hear about.

To help bridge the skills gap, we need to expose these transferable skills to our students. Make them visible. Make them count.

So the question is how do we make these visible and valued to students? The first step is to make them explicit and visible to ourselves. Then we are better able to make them visible to our students.

Here are some tips that can be used to help bridge the skills gap. [If some of these sound familiar, you may have seen a presentation that Jill Tomasson Goodwin and I gave at the OND conference this past April, or you may have seen blog posts by James SkidmoreShannon Dea and Mary Power.]

  1. Make the transferable skills visible and explicit to yourself
  • Review the UDLEs – Review the bulleted list within each category, and determine if you could turn it into a learning outcome for your course or program. Pay particular attention to UDLE 4 & UDLE 6.
  • Review your existing course syllabus – Determine what UDLEs you are making visible to the students. What is it that you mark?
  • Review your existing course assignments – What communication skills, or elements listed under Professional Capacity and Autonomy are you expecting your students to use or develop in order to complete the assigned tasks, but are not making explicit to your students? What transferrable skills are students expected to use, but remain invisible and not counted?
  1. Make these professional/transferable skills explicit and visible to your students. Make them count.
  • Talk to your students about the UDLEs –show them what the undergraduate degree level expectations actually are and what that means in terms of your discipline, program or course. Review relevant UDLEs with your students and show how they map to the relevant Essential Employability Skills/Transferable Skills or Professional Skills (whatever you are calling them) that employers are looking for. Some instructors have assigned the reading ‘It takes more than a major’ to help students see the relevance these skills have in the workplace.
  • Discuss the syllabus – take some time in class, or online, to explain what the learning outcomes for your course really mean and how these outcomes fit into the bigger picture. Explain the differences between the skill being taught or acquired in the course and knowledge being imparted. Explicitly state which UDLEs your course activities are addressing, and how particular course activities will help students develop them. Throughout the course, as you review activities and assignments with your students, ask students to identify which skills they believe they will need or will be developing as they complete the course activities.
  • Add a question to an assignment or on an exam- provide students with the opportunity to reflect on what they are learning in the course, and how that connects to the bigger picture. This can be done by asking student to add an extra paragraph to an assignment where they explain how a particular assignment helped them meet a particular UDLE, or how might they transfer or apply what they’ve learned to another course or another context. Helping students see the relevance also helps them recognize that spending time learning how to articulate how they might use a skill beyond the course is important and not just ‘busy work’. If your students are working on team projects, have each student articulate how the experience has helped them develop communication skills (UDLE 4) or skills outlined under Autonomy and Professional Capacity (UDLE 6).
  • Provide opportunities for students to perform ‘authentic skills and tasks associated with their field’ and explicitly state why this skill is valued outside the classroom. In a philosophy class, students peer review each other’s articles because it is the kind of activity that philosophers do.
  • Provide opportunities for students to connect transferable skills to co-op/work and co-curricular experiences. See how Jill Tomasson Goodwin used ePortfolios in her DAC 309 course to help students make this connection
  1. Discuss with your colleagues or at department meetings how to intentionally integrate into the curriculum opportunities to help students develop and reflect upon how they might apply these professional/transferrable skills to new contexts.
  2. Utilize Existing Resources
  1. Share your ideas and strategies – How are you or a colleague bridging the gap and re making these skills valued and visible to your students? If you’re teaching a large class, and have examples to share, I’m especially interested!

Published by

Katherine Lithgow

As Senior Instructional Developer, Integrative Learning, Katherine Lithgow facilitates ePortfolio and Integrative Learning initiatives, supporting instructors across campus with the design and implementation of activities that help students integrate learning in academic, workplace, community and social environments. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Katherine taught Cytology at The Michener Institute for Applied Health Sciences. She received her BA from the University of Toronto, and a Master’s in Educational Technology from UBC. In what seems like another life, Katherine worked as a cytotechnologist graduating from TMI’s Cytology program.

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