Comment: Universities must ensure degrees lead to jobs

News sources regularly comment on the significant unemployment and underemployment of young university and college graduates in Canada today.

If there weren’t some squirming going on among the presidents of the six universities who form the Research Universities Council of British Columbia, there should be. This is the same group that just released the B.C. Labour Market Profile predicting a significant skills shortage in our future — too few British Columbians with post-secondary credentials to meet the needs of the labour market.

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Their solution is detailed in another paper called the Opportunity Agenda for B.C., a document full of photos of happy students and grads, which states: “British Columbians know that now, more than ever before, a post-secondary education is the surest path to opportunity and prosperity.” The agenda calls for 11,000 new funded spaces in graduate, undergraduate, college and trade programs at a cost of $130 million over four years, as well as increased funding for student financial aid and research.

I don’t dispute their labour-market concerns and I agree that some type of post-secondary education is required to compete in our complex, shifting, global economy. Student debt load is shameful and unsustainable and research is important.

What I do take issue with is that nowhere in their proposals could I find any reference to the importance of — and the desperate need for — career-development education along with an academic education in these same institutions.

Canada has one of the highest graduate-underemployment rates among the 20 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries and it’s estimated that after graduating, one in three 25- to 29-year-olds with a college or university degree ends up in a low-skilled job.

During my 17 years as the manager of Career Services at the University of Victoria, I saw how students and new grads benefited from our career-exploration and work-search preparation services. However, this was an optional part of their education experience, a “student service” they could choose to use if they heard about it and decided to make the time, rather than being an integrated part of the curriculum. Consequently, many graduates left campus with little or no career or job-search planning.

I am currently advising a recent marketing graduate who says that no part of her education addressed how to market herself to potential employers. While I was at Career Services, we developed a program called Applied Career Transitions, or ACT, at that time the only program like it in Canada. ACT was primarily funded through grants from a foundation and a corporation, not by the university.

I know what a difference that program made to the careers and lives of those who found their way there, as it guided them through the process of determining how and where to find degree-related employment. But this was a last-minute remedy for a situation that should have been addressed much earlier in their education.

I feel sadness when I look at the smiling faces in the agenda proposal and imagine the hopefulness in those faces fading as they fail to find the opportunities to build the lives that they had been told to expect. As the host of one recent program said: “Why are so many universities ignoring the day after graduation?”

One career educator has likened the student who graduates without a job prospect to a new car that depreciates as soon as it leaves the car lot. Students have purpose and value; new grads — not so much. How tragic for them, for our economy and for our society.

If our post-secondary institutions want to be truly innovative and accountable, they would make career development and work preparation an integral part of the academic curriculum. Academic advising would work closely with career educators. Post-secondary institutions across Canada would collectively lobby our federal government for a national strategy on education and youth employment that would provide paid internships before and after graduation, so students could apply their education, explore their options, gain experience and build career networks.

Historically, career development in high schools and post-secondary institutions hasn’t been recognized as an essential part of the educational process. More bums in seats are not the answer unless our degree-granting institutions are required to commit some of their resources to comprehensive career education and support. It’s not good enough to get a degree; you have to know what to do with it.

 

Jennifer Margison is the former manager of career services at the University of Victoria.

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