As the summer ends, many young people are returning to universities across the country. However, for a large number of students, the future is uncertain when it comes to securing a job upon graduation – especially one that pays well.
A recent study by CIBC finds that Canadian university graduates are not earning what they once did, and the rising cost of getting that degree is shrinking the payoff even more. The number of Canadians holding university degrees is climbing. Yet according to the study, the proportion of Canadian university graduates who make less than half the national median income is the largest among the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) group of advanced economies.
Published on Aug. 26 of this year, the study cites high enrolment rates in fields which do not result in high-paying employment, namely the humanities and social sciences. Graduates from these fields are less likely to find work in their field, are unemployed longer after finishing school, and are generally earning less over their lifetimes. Additionally, the costs of obtaining a degree are rising fast – tuition fees for undergraduates have risen by an average annual rate of four per cent in the past five years, more than double the rate of inflation.
So, is getting a degree, especially from a non-technical or professional program, still worth it?
David Ness, director of the student counselling and career centre at the University of Manitoba, says that every degree holds benefits, and will make the recipient more employable, but the skills obtained from degrees in the social sciences and humanities are more nuanced.
“When students come out of dentistry or nursing they know what skills they have. A graduate from an arts or humanities program, on the other hand, may not be able to easily identify the skills they have learned. These fields teach students things like critical thinking, writing, or communication—what some people term ‘soft skills’—which are still extremely important in finding success in the job market. However, these skills are perhaps not as easily identified by the students or employers,” said Ness.
Ness also says that in order for students to find success in the workforce after graduation, they need to do more than simply attend classes and get good grades.
“We encourage students to get involved in their learning as much as possible. Look for other opportunities to get involved. The university’s co-curricular record, for example, is a great way for students to deepen their experience, and make themselves more attractive to employers after graduation,” said Ness.
This extra involvement and effort on the part of students has become essential for students to break into the job market. The proliferation of unpaid internships speaks to the need for students from non-professional and non-technical fields to make that extra step in transition from school to paid work.
However, even with a good record and extra-curricular involvement, some graduates are still finding it difficult to penetrate the job market.
“The jobs just aren’t there,” says Mike Goodkin, a sociology graduate from the University of Manitoba, who has been looking for work for the past two years, but has had to settle for unpaid internships and is about to embark on another.
“The jobs you do see require at least one to two years of experience, which I have gotten from being an intern, but I still haven’t been able to land a paying job. I’m lucky in that I can afford to do this unpaid work. Some students have debt and don’t have that luxury.”
There are a number of reasons why it is difficult for some graduates to find work. Baby boomers are not retiring at the rates that they should be, and government cuts have increased competition for white-collar jobs. Those that are fresh out of school are at a disadvantage when competing against adults who have 10 or 20 years of work experience already. However, these changes in Canada’s economy open up opportunities for young people who are creative and entrepreneurial, argues Ness.
“Those with specialized skills who see cuts in their fields may not be able to transition to other lines of work as easily as someone who has these so-called ‘soft skills’ that someone with a bachelor of arts has.”
It is clear that a university education no longer ensures a good paying job. A bachelor’s degree, especially one from the humanities or social sciences, should be viewed now as more of a single step in a longer process that could include graduate school, internships, or other training. Students need to be aware of what that piece of paper will get them and what it won’t, and adjust their expectations of what awaits them upon graduation accordingly.