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High school graduates disadvantaged in the workforce

Report finds those without post-secondary education falling behind

By Brian Kreissl 

I recently read an article in the Toronto Star about a report by the Toronto Workforce Innovation Group (TWIG) entitled 95 Months Later: Turbulent Times in Toronto’s Labour Market, which highlighted the changes in the labour market since December 2007. In particular, the report found a growing income gap in Canada’s largest city, a growth in part-time and temporary work and the increasing importance of post-secondary education for workers of all ages. 

According to John McLaughlin, one of the report’s authors and TWIG’s director of policy, “You’re in big trouble if you don’t have a post-secondary degree in Toronto.” 

The report found that people with a university degree earned twice as much as someone with no post-secondary education and had an easier time finding employment (those with a college diploma earned about 30 per cent more than high school graduates). 

Many of these trends began before the recession, but according to McLaughlin, those with no post-secondary education are “always in a recession.” This is indicative of a bifurcated labour market of “haves” and “have-nots” and a hollowing out of the middle class in Toronto. 

In many ways, it is typical of many of the world’s largest cities where the fabulously rich live cheek by jowl with people who are extremely poor. This can be partially explained by the high cost of living and the challenges in finding affordable housing in many large cities — including Toronto and Vancouver. In many cases, people of modest incomes are being squeezed out of major cities, although some of the city’s poorest residents are able to hang on through social housing and other social programs. 

The loss of well-paid blue collar jobs 

The challenges faced by those with no post-secondary education are symptomatic of the loss of so many well-paid blue collar jobs as manufacturing moved elsewhere. While I remember the Toronto of my youth being a fairly gritty and industrial place, much of the industry in the city — especially in the downtown core — has left, and large parts of the city have been gentrified beyond recognition. Blue collar jobs have largely been replaced by white collar and service sector employment. 

As a result, most of the higher paid white collar jobs in the city now require a degree or diploma. Vacancies for even the simplest office jobs now require post-secondary education, with the result that many people with a high school diploma or less find they are only able to secure temporary work or part-time minimum wage jobs in retail or fast food. 

An ‘educational arms race’ 

Rampant credentialism has resulted in an “educational arms race” where a B.A. is now considered to be the new high school diploma and jobs that never required advanced education now routinely ask for master’s degrees. 

I personally know people with little or no post-secondary education who are articulate, well-read, hard-working and adaptable but are having a hard time finding a decent job. In fact, some of the smartest and most “educated” people I’ve ever met had very little in the way of formal education but could hold their own in conversations with people with advanced degrees and professional qualifications. 

On the other hand, I’ve also met some pretty useless people with impressive academic qualifications who had very little common sense and knew remarkably little about the world around them — other than what they studied in some university course. 

While some labour market experts are saying there just aren’t enough opportunities for all of the university and college grads we’re turning out (largely because of technology), others are saying education is the key to our future prosperity and most jobs created in the future will require advanced education. So, who is right? 

I believe the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but one thing both groups may be forgetting to factor into the equation is credentialism. It is high time employers started being reasonable about the level of education required for the jobs they post. 

We also need to return to the days where savvy and hard-working high school graduates could secure meaningful employment and prove themselves on the job. Employers, educational institutions and governments should also make it easier for such people to enhance their qualifications on a part-time basis. 

While the situation is particularly bad in Toronto, employers across the country should also be mindful of the plight of workers without post-secondary education.

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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