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Canadian universities are not serving their clients well

Founder and director of Launched Careers, Toronto

A 2015 study by the federal Parliamentary Budget Officer indicated that 56 per cent of university grads under the age of 25 are underemployed – working in jobs that do not require a university degree.

You may have a recent grad living in your basement. You have made a significant investment in your child's education. You have ensured that they attended good schools, helped them with countless projects and assignments, met with dozens of teachers, participated in school events, supported them emotionally and likely contributed significantly to the $60,000 cost of a four-year university program. If they attended an independent high school, you may have added another $100,000 to your investment.

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What is going on? In 1980, there were 65 degree-granting universities in Canada – there are now 246. Almost 300,000 university graduates enter the Canadian job market every year; in 1980, the number was 100,000.

The growth in the Canadian economy since 1980 has been less than half the growth in the number of university graduates. Companies are not hiring the way they used to, and major organizations have announced significant staff reductions in the past year. Baby boomers are hanging on. Technology is eliminating many entry-level jobs.

And there's more. In 2016, McKinsey and Co., a global management consultancy, partnered with the United Way and undertook a major research initiative, the results of which were published in their report Youth in transition: Bridging Canada's path from education to employment.

The findings and conclusions in the report are astounding. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Canada’s employers in specific sectors think there is an adequate number of graduates.
  • The vast majority of educators believe they are graduating high performers, yet more than half of employers believe new graduates are unprepared for the labour force, as do most youth.
  • Certain groups including minorities, those whose parents have lower education levels and those with liberal arts degrees face serious barriers, even with postsecondary qualifications.

Of course employers think there are an adequate number of graduates – the supply exceeds the demand in most sectors by a huge margin.

There are major gaps between what educators and employers believe are important skills. Work ethic, English proficiency, teamwork and spoken communication were highly valued by employers but less by educators.

Of particular concern is that Canadian educators do not regard helping their students find employment as a leading priority, ranking it 8th out of 10. The number one priority was "attracting students," which is all about the school and not the students it's supposed to be serving.

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The Canadian educational funding model drives some very interesting behaviour. One in five Canadian employers reported that they had no interaction whatsoever with educators, and 70 per cent said they interacted with educational organizations only occasionally. In Germany, over 25 per cent reported interacting with education providers "monthly or more," whereas in Canada, the same statistic is 9 per cent.

Academics will argue that it is not their job to equip students for work; their job is to train their minds and teach them how to think. I would argue that finding a calling – work that is truly meaningful – is critical to us as individuals. It is an integral element of who we are.

Ask students why they go to university. It is not to get their mind trained or learn to think or whatever; it is a to launch them on a career that will help them find their place in the world. They, and their parents, are not getting a good return on their investment.

Executives, employees, educators and human resources experts contribute to the ongoing Leadership Lab series.

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