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The real world versus the university

The real world versus the university

by Tony Warren | May 16, 2019

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Journalist Barbara Kay recently highlighted some disturbing facts from a report on Canadian higher education: “More than one-third of the profs they interviewed identified fewer than 10 percent of their students as ‘fully engaged.’ Over 80 percent of professors said they had dumbed down their course work, and had reduced the frequency and difficulty of assignments.”

For most people figures like these are an abstraction. But from my experience in business I can attest that the “dumbed-down course work” makes it difficult to find employees who can perform in their chosen fields.

Educators at all levels have made it almost impossible for employers to assess the quality of potential employees by destroying the traditional link between students’ test achievement scores and their intellectual capacity. The results have not been great for employers like me.

More than a decade ago, I designed a facility to manufacture large composite parts that I had invented. Each part had a high value and each was easy to sell into the international market. The design of the pilot plant was such that it could produce 10 parts in a 7.5-hour shift.

The tasks were not difficult to perform. What was required was some care in the placement of the components and the need to work at a reasonable pace because the composite resins we used had specific workable times.

The process required 20 workers, all of whom where high school graduates, mainly in their early 20s.

At no point did all of these workers show up for work every day. They would never call in to say they weren’t going to come to work and they never offered a reasonable excuse when they did show up at work again. There were always a few who showed up late.

The result of this was that we had to hire at least 25 people to do the work of 20. Because there was always at least one person absent, the plant could never produce the full number of parts it was designed to make. We were never able to operate more than one shift. The result was millions of lost revenue and a bad outcome for the business as well as for its 20 employees.

After millions of dollars had been invested in research and development, plant design and build, testing and marketing the product, the plant was closed and scrapped. Why? Because we couldn’t find 20 high school graduates who knew how to work.

Thinking this experience might be unique, I surveyed my peers. The same problem existed all over Canada and in some cases in the US. One large manufacturer had identical operations in Canada and the US. The US plant was 40 percent more productive than the Canadian plant. Eventually the company, which had operated successfully for decades, simply shut its Canadian operations. Hundreds of jobs were eliminated. The biggest difference between the two plants was that the people in the US showed up for work every day.

Others told similar stories. A friend of mine is a lead partner in a specialised consultancy. In days gone by, it hired MBA graduates from elite universities in the US and Canada. Several years ago, it stopped hiring them.

The consultancy’s observation was that it was impossible to tell if graduates were of high enough quality to meet its needs. They all had had perfect marks throughout their university careers; they all had amazing resumes. Yet they knew nothing. Add to that an inflated sense of achievement, an arrogant, privileged world view and an almost non-existent work ethic -- and the firm just quit hiring them.

Instead, they hired students with bachelor’s degrees, ran them through a rigorous interview and training process, and built their own consultants.

A senior software engineer at a well-known software company told me a similar story. It became impossible for the engineer, who had hired hundreds of software engineers in the past, to select new hires from master’s graduates from elite computer science and computer engineering universities.

On paper, the applicants were identical. They had perfect marks, perfect references and perfect resumes. They seemed to come from a factory. The company was reduced to interviewing them and putting examples of typical problems that they would face if they were hired. It was rare to find one who could solve them.

When university program directors asked how their students were faring, they were surprised to find out that the company was not willing to train new hires to solve real-world problems. It had to be explained to these professors that the company did not have time to train them in the basics of software design. They were expected to hit the floor running.

Education should have as its goal helping students gain knowledge on their own. Knowledge is justifiable true belief. The tricky bit is always finding the truth. Nowadays education is often about giving children high self-esteem. Maintaining that self-esteem means that students must have high marks. The marking system has become so debased that it has become meaningless.

We are in trouble in Canada. We are unproductive and are not an easy place to do business in. We can’t compete because we no longer know how to think.

Tony Warren is an inventor. His primary area of expertise is composite materials manufactured by adhesion of thermoset resins to thermoplastic materials. His background includes interests in philosophy and psychology, accounting and finance, business management, machinery design, robotics, facility and process design, and quality control systems. He has extensive experience from a long and varied career.

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