OAC project compares skills, education and career goals of counties' workforce with needs of employers
BY KAREN GALLANT
Many high school students in rural Grey and Bruce counties plan to leave their communities after graduation for work or school in larger cities. They say there's no work in their home communities, but that's a misconception, says Prof. Harry Cummings, Environmental Design and Rural Development.
Cummings recently completed an intensive study of employers, employees and high school students in Grey and Bruce counties, comparing the skills, education and career goals of the workforce with the needs of employers.
“The goal was to look at the balance between the needs of employers and the skills of the current and upcoming labour force,” he says. “It appears there are jobs available for recent high school graduates, but this is not the perception in high schools. There is a very high youth labour force participation rate for this area compared with the rest of Ontario. Youth who choose to stay in the area are finding work.”
Bruce and Grey counties are primarily rural agricultural areas and include hundreds of kilometres of Lake Huron coastline. The Niagara Escarpment also runs through these counties, whose larger communities include Owen Sound, Hanover, Walkerton, Kincardine, Collingwood, Port Elgin and Wiarton.
Cummings says that, like many rural areas, these counties have issues with their labour force, such as difficulty attracting and retaining skilled labour, partially due to migration of many youth out of the area despite the availability of jobs.
“These are typical issues in rural Ontario,” he says. What's special about the Grey-Bruce area, however, is its proximity to the large markets of southwestern Ontario and the natural features that make it a tourist destination, he adds.
“There is opportunity for these communities to flourish in terms of employment and industry.”
But success depends on maintaining a strong workforce, and this may be a challenge for Bruce and Grey counties, says Virginia Lambdin, chief administrator of the Bruce Grey Huron Perth Georgian Triangle Training Board, which commissioned the U of G study.
“This area has the third oldest population in Canada and a very high rate of youth exodus,” says Lambdin. “If we're looking to attract business to the area, we need to be able to show that we have a skilled workforce here. By looking at our workforce and seeing what skills are there and what's lacking, we can get an idea of what training needs are.”
The study, which began in spring 2004, involved an analysis of recent census data as well as three surveys — one for employers, one for employees and one for high school students in the counties. Cummings says the surveys were carefully designed so the data could be compared between survey groups and with data from Statistics Canada.
The survey of both adults and youth indicated significant gender differences related to people's perceptions of their skills, he says. Women gave themselves high marks for their “soft skills” such as organization and creativity, whereas male respondents were more likely to note their aptitude for technical skills such as mathematical or technical expertise. There was a similar divide among male and female high school students, with females again favouring courses emphasizing soft skills and also planning to attend university at a much higher rate than males.
“There's a very distinct gender divide,” says Cummings. “We've heard about these trends before, but these findings provide some real evidence. As we began the analysis, this finding leapt out at us.”
The survey also noted a communication gap between youth and local employers, who will one day rely on this cohort for the bulk of their workforce.
“This is a heads-up to employers that we really need to hang on to our youth,” says Lambdin. “We also need to make sure they have the readiness skills so they are employable, and a way to do this is by linking young people with employers in the area before they leave for post-secondary education.”
The research team proposed a set of recommendations that aim to connect employers and their current employees as well as inform upcoming employees about how they can make themselves attractive to potential employers. Among the recommendations are increased contact between high school students and industry, more opportunities for continuing education for adults, establishing a management training program for youth, and promoting quality-of-life benefits when recruiting employees.
“The recommendations help us see the big picture so we can address issues on a regional level,” says Lambdin. “The information also serves as a recruitment tool and a planning exercise to identify the type of training we need in this region and to retain youth as well.”
Although the results of this study will be used primarily by local organizations in decision-making related to planning, resource allocation, community development and curriculum, other regions are also interested in the findings, says Cummings.
“The survey data are specific to Bruce and Grey counties, but the issues raised are common to other rural areas.”
His research team includes graduate students David Currie, Rick Whittaker and Patrick Large. As they wrap up this project, Cummings is embarking on a similar study in neighbouring Huron and Perth counties.
A copy of the full report is available online at www.brucegreyskills.com.
University of Guelph | Guelph, Ontario, Canada
| N1G 2W1 | Tel: 519-824-4120
University of Guelph