Scott Stirrett is founder and CEO of Venture for Canada. Parm Gill is managing partner of the Gill Group and chair of Venture for Canada.
Almost all Canadians know a recent university or college grad who is struggling to find employment, be it a relative, friend or neighbour. Given that, as of January, the Canadian youth unemployment rate is 11.2 per cent, nearly double the national average, there are hundreds of thousands of young Canadians who face such challenges.
As the youth unemployment rate remains stubbornly high, Canadians have paradoxically become the most educated people on earth with 56.7 per cent of 25- to 64-year-olds completing postsecondary education. For most Canadians, attending university or college is an investment that will reap long-term dividends, with bachelor’s degree holders making on average an additional $25,000 per year compared to high school graduates.
Yet, even with these labour market outcomes, there is increasing feedback from employers that graduates are lacking the skills that they need. For instance, a 2015 study from McKinsey & Company found that, whereas 83 per cent of educators feel youth are prepared for work, only 34 per cent of employers and 44 per cent of youth agree.
In order to develop a globally competitive workforce that meets the needs of Canadian employers, postsecondary institutions (PSIs) need to make their graduates’ employment outcomes a top institutional priority, implement enhanced career readiness support and collaborate with employers to develop relevant work-ready skills in students.
Prioritizing Employment Outcomes
The aforementioned study from McKinsey identified “Canadian educators do not view helping their students prepare for, and find, job placements as one of their top priorities. When asked to rank their most important priorities, Canadian universities rate helping students and graduates find employment eighth out of 10 [priorities]. Canadian colleges and other postsecondary institutions rate it fifth out of the 10.”
To better prepare youth for a changing economy, PSIs need to make the employment outcomes of their graduates as one of their most important institutional priorities.
Catalyzing Graduates’ Careers
There is increasing debate on whether the role of PSIs is to prepare graduates for their fifth job or their first job. The reality is that postsecondary institutions can realistically do both. An English major can both learn Margaret Atwood as well as gain interview skills and knowledge of relevant career pathways.
A recent Conference Board report on social-sciences and humanities students states: “easing career transitions for undergraduate degree holders should not mean emphasizing applied or technical skills at the expense of what is traditionally taught in these disciplines. Rather, it means increasing students’ awareness of possible career paths and giving them the ability to translate and market their newly developed skills to employers.” The report recommends PSIs collect and distribute information on career pathways and transitions to students, offer enhanced career-development programming and strengthen links between students and alumni.
Collaborating to develop job-relevant skills
In a world where the skills needed to succeed are rapidly changing, now more than ever, postsecondary institutions need to be nimble and keep current with the evolving needs of employers. This changing environment necessitates PSIs, and all academic faculties within them, to develop meaningful collaborations with employers. While human skills are increasingly needed to succeed in the workforce to get one’s foot in the door as a recent graduate, one often also has to have relevant technical skills. All PSIs need to be constantly iterating and adapting their programs to both develop technical skills relevant to specific industries as well human skills relevant for success in almost any field. Relatedly, it is important that both PSIs and employers recognize that they can learn from one another, and that in many cases employers can gain valuable insights from higher education.
More work needs to be done in Canada to build bridges between PSIs and employers. McKinsey has found only 9 per cent of Canadian employers indicate they are in frequent contract with education providers and 20 per cent indicate that they have no contact. These numbers compare very unfavourably to Germany, where 26 per cent of employers indicate that they are in frequent contact with PSIs and 5 per cent indicate that they have no contact, and where there is a youth unemployment rate of only 6 per cent as of December.
While there is clearly insufficient collaboration between PSIs and employers, innovative new models of higher education are emerging, such as Shopify’s Dev Degree partnerships with York University and Carleton University, where “students graduate with an honours degree in computer science in four years with 4500+ hours of work experience, plus paid tuition, vacation and a competitive salary.”
Moreover, the Business Higher Education Roundtable is making significant progress in building partnerships between employers and educational institutions. At an institutional level, more PSIs should consider creating industry advisory councils, which, in the words of the Ted Rogers School of Management, “can provide valuable insight and feedback on matters such as program structure, co-op and curriculum content.” Furthermore, PSIs should consider collaborating with accelerators and industry associations, if they do not already do so, to provide their students with enhanced experiential learning opportunities and industry-specific skills training.
Developing Canada’s greatest resource
It’s time to lay to waste the stereotype of the unemployed recent graduate. Now is the time for PSIs to move the dial by collaborating with employers to enhance their graduates job-relevant skills and career readiness.
Canada needs to be not just the most educated country in the world, but also where young people have the most abundant opportunities upon graduation, and employers have access to the talent that they need to grow.