“No one told me that an English degree was not an acceptable prerequisite for even the most basic grunt positions,” says Adelle Farrelly, a recent graduate with a bachelor of arts from McGill University and a master of arts from the University of Toronto.
“When I finished my MA I found myself working at a coffee chain surrounded by fellow students and recent graduates, all of us looking for that ‘real job’ and confused about our fate. Remember: Those you see behind the coffee counter are likely a plucky crew of medievalists, statisticians, architects and management graduates.”
This, unfortunately, is a common story among graduates in Canada struggling to find meaningful work after graduation, in part because they chose an arts education over more practical programs such as business and engineering.
As someone with two degrees – a BA in economics and a master’s degree in economic history – and as the founder of a career website with the specific goal of helping employers connect with top students and graduates for career opportunities, and vice versa, I have plenty of experience with this problem.
Founding and building up TalentEgg has involved countless conversations with employers who hire young people and an almost unlimited amount of feedback from our student and recent-graduate audience. The experience has left me with serious concerns about the way this country educates and prepares its young people for the job market.
Most distressing is the consistent devaluation of education in the arts, a process that is robbing the Canadian public of their investment in higher education, denying graduates the opportunity to contribute to the economy and effectively silencing an entire cohort of bright young minds.
Uphill struggle: The youth unemployment rate in Canada is currently 14.8 per cent. But that statistic lumps together all 15- to 24-year-olds – high-school dropouts, current students and recent graduates with up to three years of workplace experience. This figure also doesn’t include underemployment, or youth working in jobs that don’t require formal education.
In reality, for some groups of students and recent graduates, the employment rate is extremely high. For many others, the employment rate (defined as “meaningful, career-related” employment) is abysmal.
The two tiers are miles apart; ask any grad from Canada’s top business or engineering programs and they will tell you that they have no trouble finding work. Now ask any other student. Aside from connections or luck, they are facing a completely different labour market, where it’s extremely difficult to find meaningful work.
Among postuniversity employers, a non-vocational degree is usually treated like a trap door, not a stepping stone. A recent study by Quebec research body CIRANO of Canadians with postsecondary education said degree and certificate holders in specialized fields are significantly more likely to have employment directly related to their education, while 31 per cent of humanities graduates are currently employed in fields not at all related to their education. Evidence from Statistics Canada also shows that arts and humanities graduates were the least likely to have a close relationship between their field of study and employment.
While such students are increasingly pigeonholed into trying their hand at teaching and academia, these areas of employment can’t sustain such large numbers: A staggering two-thirds of Ontario’s teaching-college graduates were unemployed or underemployed in the year following graduation, according to the Ontario College of Teachers.
Ensuring that Canada’s higher education consistently leads to meaningful employment isn’t about making people feel good about majoring in an obscure specialty, or holding their hand and sheltering them from the real world – it’s part of a necessary conversation about the relationship between higher education and the job market. Leveraging the skills of all Canada’s university graduates should be a top priority, regardless of their area of expertise. The reasons are threefold:
First: we’re all investors in higher education. Whether or not you support non-vocational degrees in theory, you’re already supporting them with your pocketbook. If students aren’t getting work that draws on the skills we’ve invested in, our investment is generating a poor return.
Second: Employing graduates stimulates the economy. More than half of Canadian graduates have student debt after graduation. The average postsecondary student debt at graduation exceeds $20,000 in every province (except Quebec). In some Maritime provinces, the average debt is more than $35,000.
Graduates who can’t find meaningful, paying work soon after school are likely to wind up competing for a job that they are over-qualified for simply to make ends meet, failing to acquire useful experience for entry-level work or a future career. This, in turn, make it harder to pay off debt, which lowers their power to spend and stimulate the economy.
Third: If we can’t employ arts graduates, we lose their skill sets and potential. It’s foolish to confuse non-vocational with unemployable. Employer surveys routinely emphasize qualities such as effective written and verbal communication, teamwork and problem-solving skills as being the most in demand in their workplace.
These are the skills that the arts and humanities instil like no other. Even the most basic university coursework encourages abstract and critical thinking. .
So why aren’t employers biting? They tend to hire business grads over arts grads because they are perceived as job-ready. Business students are taught how to articulate their skills and interact with employers early on, while arts students may not know how to explain why they are the best person for the job. Business grads are better at selling themselves.
It’s true that companies often lack a cookie-cutter position into which an arts grad can be slotted. Capitalizing on the high potential embodied in a candidate’s arts education requires an investment of time and energy; a commitment to proactively seek and train people who have the potential to develop into competent leaders.
Of course, this leads to where the burden really lies: on those of us who are employers. The potential payoffs of solving this problem are significant, both to individual employers and to the Canadian economy.
Moving forward: The current system – where students choose university pathways without enough information about their future prospects, or return to school to avoid a stagnant job market, and so build up mountainous debt – needs to change.
If students continue to graduate into a job market that marginalizes soft skills, they should at least be given a crash course in postgraduation prospects. Many teenagers choose their postsecondary path without realizing the magnitude of the decision they’re making until they’re in their mid-20s.
The consequences of doing nothing not only represent a poor financial investment on the part of the government and taxpayers, but more troublingly, the waste of the potential economic impact embodied by the currently young and unemployable.
Lauren Friese is the founder of TalentEgg, a Canadian student and graduate careers website.
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