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Do employers belong in high school? Some countries say yes

Prince Edward Island is a great place to live, for all the reasons Canadians who head there on holiday know so well: the ocean, the people, the oysters. Yet this week its provincial government announced that it will subsidize the salaries of all postsecondary graduates by up to 70 per cent, an effort to keep graduates at home and businesses hiring. New Brunswick announced a similar program this past winter.

Across the country, the unemployment rate for postsecondary grads is lower than for students who've only finished high school. That is true for PEI as well, but its college and trade grads face poorer prospects. So in PEI, the government subsidy is a response to its very particular labour market.

International comparisons of education and employment outcomes often glide over such particularities. Last month, Canada was lauded by the OECD for how its college system connects graduates with the labour market and leads to lower youth unemployment. In its annual global education survey, the OECD found that youth employment in countries where vocational training was strong fared better in the last recession and recovered faster.

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Yet a bit of rifling through the report suggests that Canada is quite unusual among countries with vocational education: We wait a very long time to offer it. As a result, we are one of the few countries where more people graduate from postsecondary than high school. We think that having lots of graduates from higher ed is good. But what if it means that we waste an awful lot of time in high school?

Compare Germany, Austria, Poland and Slovenia. There, partnerships between business and schools start in high school and training continues throughout one's career, leading to promotions and advancement in spite of the "lack" of postsecondary credentials. It is this model that is now being talked up as a possible solution to the problem of youth unemployment in Europe. Germany's labour minister has even said that university should be an option only after some kind of vocational training is completed.

Co-ordination at this level would be helped by something we don't have: a national minister of education. And educational institutions at all levels willing to talk to the minister and build new agreements that value employment outcomes. Canada is still debating the extent to which education can or should be insulated from the labour market – we are decades away from being able or willing to emulate the German system. Our more autonomous approach might yet prove to be the correct one. In the meantime, provinces go at it alone: thus PEI's wage subsidy.


What varies less between countries are the differences between men and women's employment and salaries. These are nowhere as predictable as one might expect. Even as young women now earn more postsecondary degrees than men, their employment rates are 10 per cent lower on average.

When it comes to salaries, however, most women between 25 and 34 earn more than their male counterparts. Women with recent university degrees have salaries between 10 and 50 per cent higher than the men who sat beside them in class for four years. That last number is intriguing enough to revisit next week.

Simona Chiose is the Globe and Mail's education editor. Follow me on Twitter here.

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