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Starbucks baristas during the company's annual shareholders meeting in Seattle on March 20, 2019.Ted S. Warren/The Associated Press

Rob Csernyik is a freelance journalist who is writing a book about minimum-wage work.

Several months after receiving my second bachelor’s degree, I found myself working behind an espresso machine once again. When I graduated from high school in 2004, postsecondary education was presented as the ticket to high salaries and trappings of middle-class life such as home ownership.

Instead, my generation graduated from university into a global recession, followed by rising home and living costs and the global COVID-19 pandemic. The conventional wisdom was thrown on its head. Today, with the exception of certain professions, higher education guarantees little to workers.

This week, Statistics Canada released 2021 census results that show our nation has the G7′s most educated work force, with 57.5 per cent of Canadians aged 25 to 64 possessing college or university credentials. The number of workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher has increased by nearly one-fifth since the 2016 census, largely due to highly-credentialed recent immigrants.

While Statscan acknowledges some of this education may be underused, the milestone is presented as a feat worth celebrating. But in our current economic climate, especially when some industries suffer from outsized vacancies – the spinoff effects felt broadly by Canadians – it feels like a vanity metric.

Statscan notes this level of educated workers helps Canada meet labour market needs today and will do so in the future, and that it’s “essential to maintaining our standard of living as a country.” But shortfalls in certain job categories – including those that don’t require postsecondary education – are impacting that standard of living in tangible ways.

Reduced business hours and slower service due to a lack of staff in retail and food service businesses have been problems since the pandemic started, and show no sign of waning. Accommodation and food services, one of the leading job vacancy categories, continues to struggle to fill positions despite help wanted signs blanketing communities across the country.

This is also true in industries such as construction, which lack enough skilled tradespeople to fill roles and are necessary for building new housing and infrastructure. Working-age holders of apprenticeship certificates in fields such as repair technologies and construction and mechanical trades have “stagnated or fallen,” according to Statscan’s findings.

It’s notable that low-wage customer service work and skilled trades, despite their importance to our economy, are still given short shrift in political and public discussion. This leads to little advancement on critical issues such as wages, which can explain, at least in part, why these positions are tough to fill now. But these positions are frequently – and incorrectly – seen as roles people only do if they haven’t gone to university, as though they are jobs of last resort.

Slightly less than 25 per cent of minimum-wage employees had a postsecondary diploma or higher in 1998, but by 2018 that was slightly more than one in three. Having worked in these roles with postsecondary credentials, I’ve been one of these people and have worked with many others. Critically, some of the new immigrants contributing to this mismatch are underemployed – including in minimum-wage jobs. Statscan even acknowledges “the educational qualifications of some foreign-educated workers being underused.”

My first-hand experience has also shown me how little attention is paid to working conditions, wages and other concerns of sub-white-collar-workers in Canada. Yet people not wanting these jobs is often categorized as a failure on the part of workers, rather than a systemic one.

It feels like an offshoot of the credentialism that has been rampant in North American society for years. This has led to headline-making grade inflation in high schools, which has students entering postsecondary programs with puffed-up marks. Then, once at university, there’s a mismatch between classes and programs available and what’s needed in the work force.

Skills gaps are high in all industries – an average of 56.1 per cent of employees are not proficient enough to do their job, according to Statscan. But the gaps surge to nearly 80 per cent in accommodation and food services, and 67.8 per cent in retail trade, two categories that employ millions of Canadians, but which are often left out of the skills and training discussion in favour of more white-collar pursuits such as computer science.

For many workers in this country, the earnings power education is supposed to create isn’t the case. That’s why attention should be turned to what can be done in fields such as retail, food services and skilled trades in order to fill the positions that help keep our country running. This involves everything from living wages, to housing affordability initiatives – so workers can afford to live in the communities where they work – to shedding societal stigmas about these careers.

As COVID-19 recedes, there’s an opportunity to review our perspective on credentialism and, more critically, a need. Metrics such as being the most educated work force look good on paper. But as labour shortages disrupt day-to-day Canadian life, those metrics feel hollow and, at worst, like a distraction from finding solutions for increasing employment in industries that don’t get enough thoughtful care and consideration from policy makers and the public.

Let’s get these sorted out instead of throwing our caps in the air.

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