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Statistics Canada's latest study regarding the changing employment situation of younger Canadians reveals some sobering facts, but few real shocks.

One statistic that may surprise Canadians who have grown accustomed to talk of growing skills mismatches relates to the proportion of recent university graduates working in lower-skill jobs (i.e. those requiring a high-school education or less). This number has barely budged over the past 15 years. It edged up slightly between 1997 and 2007, but has since essentially flat-lined at around 20 per cent, despite difficult economic times.

While the number is still significant – about one in five 25-34 year-old workers is failing to find work that matches his or her education – there is little evidence to suggest a sharp upward trend in the wake of the recession, much less an epidemic of over-qualified, under-employed degree-holders. The vast majority of university grads find work, and in positions that do require postsecondary credentials and skills.

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What's more troubling is that an increasing share of older university-educated workers – those in the 35-54 year-old age range – are likely to be stuck in lower-skill positions. In the past, there has been a big gap between recent grads and more experienced workers, with the former group far more likely to be in lower-skill jobs. That gap shrank to less than 2 percentage points by 2012 for both men and women, as more and more older workers remained in lower-skill jobs.

It's not entirely clear what's behind these numbers, but it's probably not good news. One explanation is that opportunities for upward mobility have been reduced in the face of rapid technological change and a steady influx of qualified new entrants to the labour market. In the past, workers could expect to use an initial lower-skill job as a springboard to something better, but that may no longer be the case.

Across a range of industries, "entry-level jobs" in the traditional sense – lower-skill, lower-wage positions from which new recruits could learn the business, develop networks, and chart a career – have evaporated. Training budgets have been squeezed, and employers are able to recruit from a pool of talented, tech-savvy new entrants. So opportunities for workers to move on from a lower-skill job may be constrained. That springboard, in other words, is looking more and more like a treadmill.

Economists have known for a while that graduating during a recession is bad luck: With employment lagging, graduates have to settle for lower-wage jobs, mobility is slow, and the resulting impact on income can last a decade or more. But the StatsCan data suggest that mobility may be more constrained than we thought, even for educated workers. And this isn't just a short-term, cyclical blip – the big increases in lower-skill employment of older university-trained workers came before the latest economic downturn, so may not disappear as employment growth recovers.

The implications for university students are pretty clear: More than ever, that first full-time job is a critical one, and students are best to hit the labour market with as broad an array of skills and experience as they can muster. That means building a resume through co-op placements, summer research assistantships and extra-curricular activities. And it helps explains why internships – both paid and unpaid – loom so large in career planning strategies.

Recent media coverage has shed light on the reality of the internship experience, which admittedly isn't always positive. Still, they represent a reasonable response of both employers and young workers to the realities of the current job market, and we undoubtedly need more of them, not less. That would mean mainstreaming them into educational programs, expanding funding programs, developing standards regarding content, supervision and duration, and exploring ways to adequately recognize the kinds of skills and competencies young workers derive from internships.

This way, internships can truly become a vehicle for meaningful labour market mobility – and a badge of honour rather than a second-best option for frustrated job-seekers.

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Brent Herbert-Copley, Ph.D., is vice-president, Research Capacity, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

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