Skip to main content

Elie Waitzer, who has been working as a bike courier since graduating this year with a degree in economics from McGill University, poses for a photo in Toronto on Thursday, September 1, 2016.Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Working as a bike courier wasn't exactly what Elie Waitzer had in mind when he graduated from McGill University in 2016 with an economics degree.

"I don't think I was expecting to get my dream job right out of university, but it's been a little tougher than expected," he said, to land a job in his field.

It's a problem a lot of recent graduates are facing, navigating a job market seemingly immune to their four-year undergraduate degrees.

"It was never expected that I would submit my certificate and get a free job in return. I know it takes time," said Mr. Waitzer, who also works at a pizza shop and does volunteer work.

Related: Smart ways to save up for your child's postsecondary education

Related: Is the university experience worth the cost?

While students don't expect a free pass to a job after graduating from university, securing employment is a fundamental reason they enroll. Forty-four per cent of students said that preparing for a specific job or career was the most important reason for going to university, according to a 2016 first-year university survey by the Canadian University Survey Consortium. But expectations aren't always rooted in reality and recent graduates say Canadian universities aren't doing as much as they could to prepare them for the job market.

There's a disconnect between what students expect from their university experience and what universities believe they're responsible for, said Michael Bloom, vice-president of industry and business strategy at the Conference Board of Canada.

"They recognize that preparing students for work is one of a lot of things that they do, but they don't make it a priority at the same level that students do," he said.

"They're conducting research, want to make sure students are fully-rounded citizens, but when it comes to skills for jobs and knowing where careers are to be found, no I don't think they're doing enough," Mr. Bloom said.

Employers have also voiced concerns. A recent poll of 823 business leaders by Modus Research Inc. found that just 41 per cent believe universities in their own provinces are doing a good job of preparing graduates to address the needs of employers, while 31 per cent say they are doing a poor job.

"Right now in the work force, a degree doesn't mean much," said Giuliana Giancotta, who graduated from Peterborough, Ont.-based Trent University in April with an honours bachelor of arts in business administration and environmental studies. She's currently completing a postgraduate certificate in project management at Fleming College, in hopes of becoming a more competitive job candidate.

Following an undergraduate degree with a college diploma is common, Mr. Bloom said. "The idea is they go to university to get an education, and college to get a job."

It's a similar situation for those who pursue graduate degrees, said Chloe Grande, who graduated from Queen's University in Kingston with an undergraduate degree in English literature. While she says her undergraduate degree taught her how to think analytically, the hands-on nature of her graduate-level studies in journalism and communications helped land her a job with a public relations company.

But the responsibility for job preparation should lie with both the university and the employer, says Angella MacEwen, a senior economist at the Canadian Labour Congress.

"In Canada, employer investment and training has been falling by about 40 per cent since 1993. So there's been this attempt to shift risk and responsibility to the public sector, and less spending by employers," she said.

Canada's postsecondary education system is fantastic, said Ms. MacEwen, but there are skills that can't be learned in school because they're job specific.

"You'll hear a lot about employers complaining that universities aren't preparing students for jobs and that they're not career ready, but economists will say that any skills that are sort of particular to a job, an employer has the responsibility of training for those."

Brendan Haroldson, a 2016 applied math graduate from the University of Calgary, says universities can still help to ease that transition through appropriate training.

"The software we used in school, most people [in the work force] had never heard of it. Meanwhile, we never touched Excel," he says.

"Frankly, employers don't do a great job communicating directly to students and universities about the workplace opportunities that they're offering," Mr. Bloom said. Greater communication between employers and universities would help ensure key skills are being addressed, he added.

Many universities have career centres where students can seek assistance in finding jobs, but their effectiveness varies. Some students find them helpful when writing résumés and applying for jobs, while others say they're poorly promoted on campus and out of touch with the present-day job market – a criticism some are trying to change.

In 2014, Ryerson University changed its tack after speaking with students, alumni, employers and faculty. The new approach involves career checkpoints, a shared funding model to support non-profits and small- and medium-sized enterprises that want to hire students and recent alumni for internships, and a speaker series for employers to help share best hiring practices.

"The labour market has changed phenomenally in the last five to 10 years, and so we were looking at the new realities of the market today and what our students and key partners felt they needed to succeed," said Caroline Konrad, director of the career centre at Ryerson, who said she has seen improvements in hiring and greater use of the centre since the shift.

Interact with The Globe