Skip to main content
the skills gap

A looming skills shortage in Canada is grabbing its share of headlines and reigniting the debate about what's better – a college or university education?

Colleges are wonderful training grounds for our skilled workers. Their more recent work delivering highly applied college degrees with a skills focus makes a valuable contribution to increasing demands for credentials to meet the needs of today's workplaces.

But historically – and it still holds true today – the majority of jobs created in the market place require a university education. Ontario's Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities' own statistics show that 70 per cent of jobs in the coming years will require a university degree.

And that's why universities have responded with more than 500 agreements to help college students easily move into university degree programs. It's also why universities believe in the important work of a new organization in Ontario, ONCAT, whose mission is to build even more bridges – bridges from apprenticeships to college diplomas, diplomas to diplomas, diploma to both college and university degrees, and finally university degrees to specialized college training – it's all good stuff.

A recent analysis by the CIBC reinforces the value of a university education. The study shows jobs in the near future will be created to address labour shortages in health care, natural and applied sciences, management, as well as mining and engineering. The vast majority of these jobs require a university degree.

Statistics Canada data shows that 700,000 jobs for university graduates were created between July 2008 and July 2012, compared to 320,000 for college-only graduates.

University graduates find jobs faster than those with only a college diploma – 87.5 per cent of university graduates are in jobs within six months of graduation. For college students, that figure is 83 per cent.

And university graduates are better off in terms of lifetime premium earnings to the tune of more than $1.3-million. That's good for the individual and good for government revenue, which benefits from taxes collected on those earnings Universities are not traditionally job training institutions, although they have always produced extraordinary graduates from such professional programs as law and medicine, business and architecture.

Even their non-professional programs produce graduates who get jobs. And in more recent years, universities are fostering innovation and producing entrepreneurs who create jobs for themselves and others.

We often hear complaints that our universities are turning out too many history grads, and what good is a philosophy degree when it's time to get a job.

But the reality is that there are philosophy graduates running financial institutions, there are history graduates in politics and public policy, there are english graduates in management positions.

Some of those graduates didn't go immediately into the job market; some went on to do graduate studies, some crossed over into college, perhaps to take some training in communications or media relations.

The fact that people want to augment their learning to make themselves more marketable is a good thing. If universities have done their job well, they will have prepared our young people for lifelong learning, where they will pop back in and out of our colleges and universities or industry training programs as their own appetite for knowledge and the job market demands it.

This is why universities are offering a wide range of programs at their faculties of continuing education. And it's why universities are working more closely than ever with colleges and postsecondary partners around the world.

For some, getting a job isn't only about learning a skill at college. It isn't only about learning a core discipline at university. Getting and staying in the job market can be about both.

The notion that more time spent learning before settling into the job market is time wasted has to be reconsidered.

Bonnie M. Patterson is President and CEO of the Council of Ontario Universities.

Interact with The Globe