For the student body this is a time of building excitement as summer holidays now seem to be just around the corner. Indeed, for many third and fourth year students, this time is especially exciting as it represents the final sprint-to-the-finish at the end of their undergraduate careers.
However, in universities across the country there is a growing feeling of tension as many students sense that the traditional notion that success in higher-education equals a rewarding career no longer matches the Canadian reality.
Matthew Davidson is a graduating Trent student and the co-ordinator for the Peterborough chapter of the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG). He says that in looking at the statistics for unemployment and student debt, many graduates hoping to land immediately in the career of their choice are in for a rude awakening. The fact is, he explains, “[Students] accumulate thousands of dollars of debt each year while pursuing an education on the promise that education will provide more opportunities in the future. But when [they] graduate they find that there are no jobs.”
For students preparing to make the leap out school and into full time work, the statistics are indeed sobering. According to Statistics Canada, 15 percent of Canadians under the age of 24 are classified as unemployed, almost double rate of the general population. Furthermore, the bigger, yet often unseen, issue for graduating students is that of underemployment. A recent CBC documentary entitled Generation Jobless estimated that the number of 25-29 year olds currently stuck in low-paying, low-skilled work is almost one in three.
Davidson warns that this harsh reality could leave students struggling to balance their career aspirations with the weight of their student debt. “We [students] are forced into taking low-paying irregular work that is totally inadequate if we are aiming to pay off our debts, which we must do if we want a mortgage, or if we are hoping to have any sort of financial security in our lives.”
However, Tom Phillips sees the situation from a different perspective. Mr. Phillips is an economist and a business administration professor teaching at both Trent University and Fleming College. Although he acknowledges the concerns of Davidson and other soon-to-be graduates he argues that this type of situation can also present opportunities for career exploration. “[Graduates] are much more likely to get a contract job than a permanent job… but that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he explains. “Go in and see what’s going on in different sectors and the kinds of jobs that are out there. Shop a little bit.” Phillips adds that as bad as the statistics are for youth unemployment, this is not the first time Canada has seen those types of numbers. In fact, he says, the situation “is not unlike the experience that I went through coming out of Trent.”
What Davidson and Phillips can agree upon is that the Canadian university system is not doing enough to prepare students for the realities of the contemporary labour market. “The most conservative public sector of the economy is education,” argues Phillips. “Around the middle of the twentieth century is when education was turned into mass production. Students moved through education production and at the end were given a degree or diploma, like making a car. Well, we don’t make cars like that anymore, but we still educate students in that way.”
Phillips worries about the future of post-secondary education in Canada and cites the rapid evolution of technology, the changing demands of the labour market, and the rapid rise of digital education and Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) as significant challenges for the coming decade. He further notes that the university system is training students to be specialists when what much of the economy is seeking is generalists.
Phillips’ is by no means alone in his criticism. Within the university system itself there is a growing acknowledgment that institutions can do more to help students prepare for life post-academia. For Kristi Kerford, the director of Trent’s Academic Skills and Career Centres, Canada’s universities continue to play an pivotal role in teaching students skills they can use to further their career aspirations after graduation. However, she also acknowledges that there are areas in which post-secondary institutions could be doing a better job. “I think we could weave career education more into the fabric of what students are doing,” she says. “Rather than it being just a service that is on the side it could be woven in so that some students aren’t caught so off guard in their final year.”
Kerford adds that an increased focus on experiential opportunities would go a long way towards helping students prepare for the realities of full-time employment. “This is an area that [universities] can look more closely and make more available. The trick is to help students understand the positive impact those experiences can have on their lives and on their career opportunities.”
In speaking to Davidson, Phillips, and Kerford it would seem that few people deny that change is coming to Canada’s post-secondary education system. Indeed, last summer the Ontario Government introduced a controversial discussion paper entitled Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation and Knowledge that advocated for dramatic increases in online education, credit transferability, and experiential learning. Although the document did receive some stiff blowback from those in the post-secondary community, Phillips argues that this type of approach could be just what the doctor ordered for the country’s economy. “You can’t continue to maintain business, let alone society as a whole, with lower rates of productivity growth than all of your competitors. Is [Canada] doing fine? No, we’re not doing fine. Technology is going to drive education [in the future], not education driving technology and we’re just not there.”
While the prospect of change does seem to be on the horizon, it will no doubt come as cold comfort to those graduates caught in the vicious cycle of underemployment and bloated debt. The trick for both avoiding and escaping that cycle, says Phillips, is to be proactive. He explains that one of the best things that new graduates can do, even in temporary or contract jobs, is build up their professional network. “Kids are at a real disadvantage when it comes to the network that they have to find jobs. Jobs are very often not found through applications, but through some form of connection.”
Furthermore, he advises graduates and students alike to keep an open mind when it comes to career paths. “When I came out of undergrad, I worked three short term contracts at city hall,” he recalls. “It gave me a good idea of what was going on at the municipal side and made me realize that I didn’t want to work in [that]. So I went back and did my masters.”
In the meantime, for many students the dream of higher education translating into secure and stable employment has already become more of a nightmare. With 60 percent of students graduating with an average debt of $27,000, and baby-boomers pushing back retirement to compensate for reduced or lost pensions, it is tempting for students to think that they may simply have been born at the wrong time. But, as Phillips properly reminds us, a brighter side always exists.