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Founder and director of Launched Careers, Toronto

A federal government report in 2015 found that 56 per cent of university graduates under the age of 24 were underemployed – working in jobs for which they were overqualified – and 40 per cent of the 25-to-34-year-old segment were similarly underemployed.

While the study has yet to be updated, given the trends reported in it there is little reason to expect that this situation has changed. We all know of a university or college grad working as a barista or living in their parents' basement.

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In 2016, the World Economic Forum (WEF) published “The Future of Jobs – Employment, Skills and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” The report identified demographic, socioeconomic and technological drivers of change. The impact of those changes in the 2020s is expected to be primarily technical and will include advanced robotics and autonomous transport; artificial intelligence and machine learning; and advanced materials, biotechnology and genomics.

These drivers of change will result in changes in employment in existing job families, and also the emergence of entirely new careers.

Winners and losers

The biggest winners are expected to be business and financial operations; management; computer and mathematics; architecture and engineering; healthcare; and sales and related.

The biggest losers are expected to be office and administrative; manufacturing and production; construction and extraction; arts, design, entertainment, sports and media; and law.

New and emerging job categories include data analysts and specialized sales representatives. The former is self-evident; the latter is driven by the need for organizations to become skilled at commercializing their offerings.

Obviously, the big winners are science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and the losers are the liberal arts. STEM fields offer more opportunity and superior compensation. According to Statistics Canada, the highest starting salaries for university undergraduates are for engineers, and the lowest are for those with liberal arts degrees.

Mathematics skills are critical as they are a fundamental element of all STEM educational streams and professions. As Professor Anna Stokke pointed out in an article in The Globe and Mail last year, the Ontario Education and Accountability Office’s 2016-17 results showed that only 50 per cent of Grade 6 students met the provincial math standard, down from 61 per cent 10 years ago.

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The Ontario report also indicated that the percentage of Grade 3 students who met the standard was higher than that of Grade 6 students. Mathematics is cumulative in nature; that is, basic skills must be mastered before new ones can be acquired. Obviously, that is not happening.

The trend toward what is referred to as student-centered, experiential, inquiry or 21st-century learning is not serving students well. These techniques are not backed up by solid research evidence, which shows that explicit instruction by a teacher followed by student practice nurtures better understanding and stronger mathematical problem-solving. In addition, it has been documented that many elementary teachers feel uncomfortable teaching math.

Guidance counsellors, who are supposed to provide educational and career advice to students, are unable to do so. In Ontario, there is one guidance counsellor for every 600 or more students in public high schools, and their attention is increasingly focused on behavioural and mental-health issues. These statistics are likely similar in all provinces and territories.

Canadian universities and colleges must also accept some ownership for this. The evidence indicates that Canadian educational institutions rank helping their students find employment as only eighth in a list of 10 priority areas.

Of concern is that one in five Canadian employers reported that they had no interaction whatsoever with education providers and 70 per cent said they “occasionally” interacted with providers. In Germany, more than 25 per cent of employers reported interacting “monthly or more” with providers – whereas in Canada only nine per cent report engaging in this interaction.

If elementary and high-school students are not taught the skills or given appropriate guidance by their educators or parents, they will miss out on university or college degrees that can serve as a foundation for a career in the 2020s.

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What to do?

  1. Ensure that your elementary and high school students take mathematics and science courses. Do not give up on these courses. Yes, they may be more challenging. Calculus reduced my daughter to tears, but she is now completing her PhD for which she had to complete a number of challenging statistics courses.
  2. Do your due diligence with your son or daughter when considering university or community college programs. There is a plethora of research about career options for graduates of specific disciplines. LinkedIn is a powerful tool for doing this; you can enter the school and program names as search parameters and see where graduates are working and what they are doing. In a similar search for one community college program, I discovered that only 10 per cent of program graduates in the last three years were working in their related industry.
  3. Talk to experienced professionals in the field and get their point of view on careers in their field.

Informed decision-making can lead to a great career and finding one’s calling.

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