Post-graduate degrees the new BA (Guest Commentary)

Canada’s ‘dirty little secret’ is rampant unemployment of graduates
By Michael Burzynski
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/17/2012

Wen it comes to post-secondary education, Canadians should be proud. We have one of the most educated populations in the world. More than one-half (56 per cent) of people aged 25 to 34 have some form of post-secondary credentials, according to Statistics Canada data from the 2006 Census.

That’s great, but there’s a downside: The more undergraduate degrees that flood the market, the less valuable they are when it comes to landing a job.

With the number of university students growing, and graduates flooding the job market, it feels like the undergraduate degree is equivalent to what a high school diploma used to be.

Doesn’t it seem like everyone goes to university now? Post-secondary institutions have been portrayed as educational factories, churning out undergraduate degrees. Consequently, we are starting to see a shift in students’ behaviour in their attempts to gain a foothold in the labour market.

More undergraduate students are looking to obtain multiple degrees and diplomas. University grads, unable to find jobs, are enrolling in post-graduate studies in hopes of strengthening their chances of landing a career.

The numbers paint a clear picture. In 1980, there were about 25,000 people enrolled in master’s degree and doctorate programs. By 2010, that number had ballooned to 80,000, according to Statistics Canada data and estimates from the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.

Canada isn’t alone on this front. South of the border, the number of master’s degrees handed out has more than doubled since the 1980s. Now two in 25 adults have a master’s degree in the United States, about the same percentage who had attained college education or higher in the 1960s, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

At one point, a bachelor of arts was a distinction that would open opportunities and lead to rewarding jobs. But the BA has lost its lustre to the point where it is often viewed merely as a bridge to another degree program.

With so many students hitting the books, it would appear prospective post-graduates may believe an advanced degree gives them a competitive advantage in the job market — but do employers feel the same?

In the United Kingdom, the labour market has become so competitive that top employers are screening out graduates who fail to gain first-class degrees.

Employers are so swamped with applications that filtering candidates by the best degree classifications is one of the easiest — and cheapest — ways to reduce the shortlist, according to a report from the Association of Graduate Recruiters, a U.K.-based non-profit that helps employers with graduate recruitment.

For jobseekers, having graduate studies on a resumé seems like a way to differentiate themselves in a highly competitive working world.

For example, in 2007, two years after they had graduated, a higher proportion of graduates with a master’s degree were working full time than college graduates or those with a bachelor’s degree or a doctorate, according to Statistics Canada. And that was before the bottom fell out of the economy.

Somehow, the federal and provincial governments need to address the “dirty little secret” of the university system — the rampant underemployment of graduates.

Michael Burzynski is a human resources training officer at Columbia International College, a private boarding school in Hamilton. He can be reached at mburzynski@columbiainternationalcollege.com or (905) 572-7883 ext. 2641.

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