What skills are needed at the interface between the social sciences, humanities and the arts (SSHA) and society?

June 9, 2023
Erika Dilling

by Erika Dilling, Global Health and the Environment Honours Major, 3rd year at York University

“What are the needs of prospective non-academic employers of SSHA talent in the industry as well as social and public sectors? More importantly, whose responsibility is it, within and around the university, to offer programming that will meet the needs of students and communities?”  

COVID-19 changed the work landscape for many. With professionals moving their offices to their kitchen tables, new avenues for growth became possible. Scheduling platforms, video conferencing software, and artificial intelligence have allowed both employers and employees to cast a wider net. The result? Increased competition – according to the most recent BCC skills survey. The survey highlights that employer expectations for recent graduates have increased regarding technical skills, ‘human’, or interpersonal, skills (e.g. communication), and work experience. Yet, employers struggle to find candidates who meet their criteria.  

The ‘skill deficit’ speaks to the labour-market gap between employer expectations and employee performance. Are we observing a ‘skill deficit’ or simply unrealistic employer expectations? Tackling this question first, Rahina Zarma (Senior Policy Advisor for Mitacs) uses the analogy of a basketball team to argue that while there will undoubtedly be specific areas individuals excel, everyone on the team is expected to know how to dribble. Dribbling, in this case, was in reference to the previously mentioned ‘human’ skills. CEO of eCampus Ontario, Robert Luke, suggests that oftentimes, recent graduates have acquired skills through their education that they aren’t cognizant of – resulting in a skill mismatch rather than a skill deficit.  

Whose responsibility is it to ensure students graduate with a relevant skill set? The onus seems shared between employers, universities, and students or employees. Employers need to be prepared to mentor, upskill, and train both new and retained employees. Isabel Cascante, Director of Research, Public Policy, and Evaluation at United Way Greater Toronto, notes the caveat that while important, this is often difficult for employers to fulfil since they are hiring to close a gap. In other words, they are hiring because their team is missing a skillset, which makes internal mentoring challenging, if not impossible.  

Regarding the role of universities in skill training, Sapna Mahajan, Director of Genomics in Society at Genome Canada, emphasizes that applicability is often the missing piece between research and industry. Research funding and student training ought to respond to the needs of community and industry stakeholders. Unlike STEM programs, the correlation between theory and practical use in the humanities and social sciences (HSS) can be complex for employers to identify. This is where communication skills become vital for humanities and social science (HSS) graduates. Graduates of HSS programs are equipped with marketable skills (especially for interdisciplinary industries) but being able to explain what they are and why they are essential is crucial if students want to make the leap from academia to industry.  

The archetype of the ‘disruptive innovator’ has foregrounded the conversation around remaining competitive in the labour market. However, remaining competitive is not as essential as remaining collaborative. Robert Luke suggests that rather than disruptors, labour market trends and global events have demonstrated an urgent need for receptors. For employers, universities, and students or employees, a concluding piece of advice is to identify your strengths (re: passion, as Mehrdad Hariri, Chief Executive Officer at the Canadian Science Policy Centre, asserts) and keep an eye out for creative ways to apply them to meet the needs of your community.