Do we actually want more graduates?

Mike Davies, Editor-in-Chief Ω

Sri Whorrall receives her Communication and School Support Certificate June 15, 2012 at the Spring convocation at TRU. What is she in for now that she's looking at joining the workforce? - Photo by Samantha Garvey

Sri Whorrall receives her Communication and School Support Certificate June 15, 2012 at the Spring convocation at TRU. What is she in for now that she’s looking at joining the workforce? – Photo by Samantha Garvey

Over the break, I was perusing my Twitter feed and I happened across a statement from one Mr. Justin Trudeau, prospective (and some think inevitable) leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

“I believe we should raise our post-secondary education rate to 70 per cent. Help us get there. Contribute to our campaign,” he said.

For some reason, my first thought was, “I don’t want more graduates!” and I was somewhat taken aback by this initial instinct. Why wouldn’t we want more graduates, Davies? Shouldn’t we be striving to have the highest number so that our future workforce will be a well-educated and productive one?

As I said, it was just a first instinct, so I set out to examine the question. I thought maybe I was just being selfish and not relishing in having a greater number of people competing with me for jobs after I finish my education (if an education can ever be considered “finished,” which is a topic for another time). After further review, it seems my initial response might be the right one, whether for selfish reasons or not.

Generation Jobless, a documentary produced by CBC, aired earlier this year which opens with the statistic and question, “This year, 254,000 young men and women will graduate from Canadian universities, ready to conquer the world … but are they ready for a rude awakening?”

The documentary explores the issue of the underemployment epidemic that has taken Canadian graduates by surprise upon their entry into the workforce.

Youth unemployment is currently double that of the general population. Over the past four years, the number of young people without jobs has increased to the tune of 250,000, according to the research done by the filmmakers. No, that’s not the new total — that’s the increase.

One of the major problems is that universities and colleges are not keeping up with the current state of the global economy and industry. They merely churning out degrees that don’t have the relevance they used to.

“Higher education is actually preparing people for jobs of the past,” according to Thomas Frey, who spoke to the filmmakers, analyzes trends and authored the book, Communicating with the Future: How re-engineering intentions will alter the master code of our future.

It’s no surprise that universities are supplying the wrong kind of graduates from what the market has demand for, though. Public institutions receive funding based on the numbers enrolled, so there is little incentive for them to tailor their offerings to specific programs, even if there was communication between the institutions and industries — a level of communication that seems to be lacking.

Even were post-secondary institutions providing degrees that are in demand, the pure greed of the industries themselves may prevent many from garnering good positions in their chosen fields. Employers are taking the opportunity of an aging workforce and constant increases in productivity — both human and automated — to increase their profits at the expense of those who are generating those profits for them.

“We haven’t seen anything like this in almost 100 years,” according to Armine Yalnizyan, senior economist for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. “Bosses are asking people to take less money when they’re already profitable.”

Now, I don’t want to make it sound like it’s just industry and educational institutions’ fault that society finds itself in this situation — though they have had (and continue to have) a large impact on our seemingly dim employment future — but the situation has been encouraged by previous generations of workers, as well.

Students take advantage of the annual Job Fair at TRU, looking for a leg up on the competition once they graduate. - Omega File Photo

Students take advantage of the annual Job Fair at TRU, looking for a leg up on the competition once they graduate. – Omega File Photo

For the first time in history, according to Generation Jobless, people entering the workforce are competing directly with their parents’ generation for the same jobs — and losing.

“Back in the ’70s and the ’80s you would never have expected to compete with someone who was 68 for the same job,” according to Francis Fong, economist with TD Bank, one of the experts who spoke in the documentary. “These people have 40 years of work experience on you…and they’re competing for the same jobs. That’s very unique. We did not see that competitive pressure being faced by any other cohort of young people.”

Then there are the lofty expectations of the current crop of graduates themselves.

Many graduates climb those stairs wearing their fancy robe and hat, walk across that stage and pick up their expensive, rolled up piece of paper from another person in a fancy robe and hat and expect to walk down the stairs on the other side straight into a high-paying job in their chosen field. But what if their chosen field doesn’t want to meet their demands of being paid more and have some benefits in their remuneration package because of their education? What if you really didn’t need that expensive degree and the fact that you have it actually makes you less desirable to employers? After all, why would they hire you, when they can hire a part-timer with real on-the-job experience and less financial impact on their businesses?

Are you willing to accept a minimum wage, part-time temporary position in your field once you graduate?

There are those who are, you know, and you’ll be competing with them for the positions available. They also might have years of experience in that field while you have none.

So while you may not be willing to work in your field for less than you presume you are worth (possibly rightfully so, considering how much time and money you’ve just spent to gain that piece of paper), there are studies that suggest that taking jobs outside your expertise once you graduate in order to make ends meet might be a terrible idea.

According to a recent paper published by the Certifi­ed General Accountants Association of Canada, this rampant underemployment leads to erosion of the skills and knowledge that individuals have gained through education.

In short — if you don’t use them, you lose them — which makes it all the more important for us to figure out a way to get graduates into positions for which they have attained the skills and knowledge through their education. Otherwise, their education was not only expensive and less valuable than similar ones in the past, but while they make do with other jobs, they lose what they’ve spent all that money on learning.

The question remains, however: If there aren’t decent jobs in your chosen field available when you graduate and you shouldn’t take jobs outside your field and risk losing the skills you’ve developed, what do you do?

I have no idea.

I knew there was a reason I responded to Mr. Trudeau’s tweet the way I did. I can’t see why we would be professing to need more post-secondary graduates, when we have no way to support the numbers we already have.

“Some think churning out more graduates just make degrees worth less to those who earn them. Thoughts?” I asked the possible future leader of a federal political party. After all, social media allows for these discussions. I received no answer.

We need to be focusing on how to produce graduates that will further our society — as well as figure out ways to change the work landscape so they are actually able to use their expansive (and expensive) skills and knowledge.

Lauren Friese, owner of Talent Egg, one of the ever-increasing job-placement businesses in Canada, agrees with me.

“We need to stop funnelling so many students through this program that then leaves them with debt and unemployment on the other side,” she said. “I don’t understand why we’re pushing more people into university and college so they can graduate with debt and not be able to find a job.”

It turns out these educations that we’re pursuing are becoming more expensive and less valuable and we need to change that ever-increasing gap before it’s too late.

We need to solve the problem of the underemployment of the graduates we’re getting before we proclaim that we need more of them.

The way things look right now, we either need fewer — and the ones we have need to be more suited to the current state of the market — or we need to change the state of the market itself.

editor@truomega.ca