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report on colleges: employment

Dana Huggard, a graduate of the media, information and technoculture program at Western University, went on to study public relations at Humber College in Toronto.Cliff Spicer

After working a summer job in government affairs and communications, Dana Huggard knew what she wanted to do once she finished university.

Go to college.

Ms. Huggard, who graduated in 2008 from the four-year media, information and technoculture program at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., had taken a course on public relations at the university. But after her government summer job, she wanted to learn how to actually become a public relations practitioner.

"I wanted to develop the skills set you need to apply PR," recalls Ms. Huggard, who now lives in Toronto and works as an associate manager of corporate communications for Johnson & Johnson Inc. "So based on some research online and what I had heard from a family friend, I decided to enroll in the public relations program at Humber College."

In going from Western to the eight-month course at Humber in Toronto, Ms. Huggard joined the growing number of university graduates in Canada who are topping up their education with a college diploma or certificate. Instead of entering the labour market straight away or going to graduate school, many university grads today are taking a different pathway – one that leads to the doorstep of a college or polytechnic institute.

"It's a huge trend," says Linda Franklin, president and chief executive officer of Colleges Ontario, the advocacy and outreach association of Ontario's colleges and technology institutes. "In the last five years in Ontario, we have seen a 40-per-cent increase in university graduates going to college."

There are no recent national statistics tracking university graduates who go to college, "but anecdotally, you could probably say there is a trend with college students having a university degree or a level of university education," says Michèle Clarke, director of government relations and policy research for the Association of Canadian Community Colleges, the Ottawa-based organization that represents the country's colleges and institutes.

So what's behind this rising flux of university grads going to the country's colleges and polytechnic schools?

One word: jobs. The postrecession economy has made it harder for young Canadians to find work, so many are going back to school after months of unemployment or underemployment to gain skills they can apply in a particular line of work, Ms. Clarke says.

A college or polytechnic institute is just the place to go for job-focused training, says Glenn Feltham, president and CEO at Edmonton-based Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, where about 10 per cent of students have a university degree and close to half have had some postsecondary education before coming to NAIT.

"People come to an institute such as NAIT because they know they can get hands-on education that can help find a meaningful career," he says. "Every program at NAIT has an industry advisory board that works closely with the program to make sure they are directly relevant to the industry and to the workplace, and to make sure that the people at that advisory table are going to be hiring our graduates."

Lauren Friese, founder of TalentEgg, a Toronto-based online job site for postsecondary students and recent graduates, says employers are increasingly scanning résumés for education that matches the jobs they're trying to fill.

"Employers today are investing less in training and nurturing young people," Ms. Friese says. "They want to see the name of the job they're hiring for in the education listed on your application, so if they're hiring a marketing assistant, they're going to want to see the word marketing somewhere in your education."

While university graduates remain highly employable, their growing ranks have made them less of a select group in the labour market, Ms. Friese notes. Today more than 22 per cent of Canadians have a university degree, compared with just less than 11 per cent in 1990, according to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, a federal government department.

Adding a college diploma or certificate to a university degree can give job applicants an edge over others, Ms. Friese maintains.

"It's a great mix," she says. "Going to university gives you that solid grounding in theory and great thinking while college gives you that practical career training."

Because most college programs offer a co-op or internship component, students get real-world experience in their field. Some even get jobs with the company where they did their internship.

That's what happened to Ms. Huggard, who interned at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel in Toronto for four months as part of her program at Humber College. After graduating from Humber, she worked for 2 1/2 years at Fairmont Royal York as a public relations co-ordinator.

"My career goal initially was to do PR in hospitality," Ms. Huggard says. "I don't think I would have gotten that opportunity if I hadn't gone to Humber."

Canada's colleges are certainly making it easier for university graduates to go back to school for skills training. Fanshawe College, based in London, Ont., for instance, introduced eight-month graduate certificate programs about a decade ago and has continued to add more of these programs.

"We keep expanding the number of graduate certificates we have each year and now have about 24," says Lane Trotter, senior vice-president of academic at Fanshawe. "What's great about these graduate certificate programs is they allow students to get into the workforce quickly because they already have a solid underlying base from their previous education."

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