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University of British Columbia bachelor of arts student Gavin Kennedy waits to receive his diploma during a graduation ceremony in Vancouver on May 24, 2012. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
University of British Columbia bachelor of arts student Gavin Kennedy waits to receive his diploma during a graduation ceremony in Vancouver on May 24, 2012. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Humanities students less vulnerable to job-market booms and busts, study says Add to ...

Students from the social sciences and humanities have more stable careers in the long run than those who pursue more highly paid disciplines like computer science, which go through boom and bust cycles, a new study of 82,000 graduates released Monday has found.

The study looks at the labour market outcomes of each class of graduating students from the University of Ottawa, between 1998 and 2010. Earnings in some fields, particularly computer science, are much more vulnerable to economic cycles than in others, where salaries are lower but steadily move up through the years. Over the next year, the study will be extended to other institutions across the country and reach colleges and clusters of schools in the same region.

“No one wants this to be another league table, but people want to understand how their graduates are faring,” said Ross Finnie, co-author of the study and the director of the Education Policy Research Initiative at the University of Ottawa.

Computer science graduates show the highest volatility among all graduates. Those lucky enough to graduate in 1998 earned approximately $62,000 on average in the first year, which rose to about $100,000 at 13 years after graduation.

Students inspired to go into IT by the high salaries of the late 1990s would have been sorely disappointed only a few years later when first-year median salaries came in at $44,000.

“It is remarkable how much those earnings drop. Those who entered the labour market at the bottom of the dot-com bust were students when earnings were at their highest,” said Dr. Finnie, who added that researchers were surprised by the finding.

Recent grads say they are finding they are in high demand. Devin Jeanpierre graduated from the University of Toronto last year and is now working for Google in San Bruno, Calif.

“The market as a whole is short of new employees, so all the small, lesser-known companies are competing for your attention as a possible hire,” he said.

Expanding the study to more universities means that students will have more data to help them make informed choices about which field to pursue, said Don Drummond, former Toronto Dominion Bank chief economist and chair of the Advisory Panel on Labour Market Information.

“Nobody needs this information more than the 14- or 15-year-old who is contemplating a field of study,” Mr. Drummond said.

Still, trying to decide what to study in university will never be a science and the latest report shows that what students ultimately choose depends on how they rank their own abilities – and their luck. The top-earning business grads make tens of thousands more than graduates in any other field of study.

For middle-income earners, salaries converge across most fields. (Student information was matched with tax data to achieve the results.)

Earnings of men and women diverged over time, however, with the gap between the two groups highest in computer science and engineering.

Mr. Drummond said the $30,000 premium earned by senior men in that field shows the need for the industry to change its image, and for educators to adopt policies that raise the number of women studying science and math in high schools.

In general, business needs to work closer with universities to try to smooth out extreme peaks or valleys in labour demand, Mr. Drummond suggested.

“Businesses have been very vocal in last couple of years that universities are not producing the types of skills they need, but I have never talked to a business person who did not give the impression that if you allowed them to control the university curriculum it would not all be destroyed. … The one thing we do know is that the needs of today are never the needs of tomorrow; you have to train people to learn.”

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