In January, Ontario held a Talent and Skills Summit attended by post-secondary education stakeholders. The same week, McGill University president Suzanne Fortier suggested at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that universities need to prepare students for the modern labour market, while American vice-president Joe Biden indicated that investing in education was one of the keys to saving the middle class.
These sentiments echo what academics, policymakers and students have been suggesting for years: The relationship between higher education and the labour market has changed. That’s meant a shift in student sentiment, where many have begun to question the value of their post-secondary degree and their (to-date) lifelong investment in education. After all, there are opportunity costs associated with pursuing a university education, just as there are opportunity costs facing government when they invest in education over other sectors of the economy.
And yet it is through education that all parties can ultimately achieve their goals. Students want to be qualified for jobs and find employment after graduation. Employers want qualified employees. The government wants a highly skilled workforce that can compete with any in the world, and universities want to see students succeed in their careers.
To realize these attainable, co-existent interests, the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA) has outlined five courses of action:
Address the disconnect:
The most apparent manifestation of the disconnect between universities, employers and students is the skills mismatch issue. It has simultaneously created labour shortages for certain sectors of the economy, such as agriculture, and high unemployment rates for specific segments of the workforce, such as youth. It has also affected productivity: Since the early 2000s, labour productivity in Ontario has flatlined; meanwhile, overall hours worked have risen, according to a 2014 report from the Ontario government.
There are many broad factors at play in labour productivity, including innovation, trade and management strategies; however, the most immediate action government can take to remedy this issue is to continue its push for more international students with different backgrounds and skillsets, and make it easier for them to settle in Ontario post-graduation.
Government can also encourage universities to properly articulate the learning outcomes and skills students derive from their courses, so students can then effectively communicate these skills to employers and boost their chances of being hired.
Manage everyone’s expectations:
Students, universities and employers should all be able to anticipate the learned knowledge and skills that graduates will possess when they enter the workforce. Only 44 per cent of Canada’s youth believe they are adequately prepared for the workforce, while 34 per cent of employers believe youth are prepared, but an astounding 83 per cent of educational institutions believe youth are adequately prepared, according to the 2015 report Youth in Transition from McKinsey & Co.
The percentage gap between educational providers and employers (49 points) is the largest among the selected surveyed countries — including Germany, the United States, India and the United Kingdom. Moreover, only 38 per cent of youth say they have knowledge of job openings, wages and placement rates. Clearly, not everyone is on the same page.
To meet student expectations for their education and career prospects, greater levels of on-the-job training should be encouraged for entry-level employees, such as recent graduates who may lack work experience but have potential, skill and enthusiasm. The government can aid employers in this by providing incentives for them to train and hire recent graduates in the form of tax breaks and wage subsidies.
To ensure students are also accountable for their careers, employers should review their transcripts prior to hiring them. Not only would this increase student retention and graduation rates, but it would also encourage academic success and provide greater assurance for the employer that the graduates they are hiring are worth the investment. Grades are by no means the end-all-be-all indicator of success, but they do reflect aptitude, critical thinking, resilience and work ethic.
Encourage innovation in the workplace: A highly skilled workforce should leverage the skills of all segments of its population, including that of students, women, indigenous peoples and immigrants. Government programs must continue to target groups that are underrepresented in the workforce to realize their potential and their economic contributions to the province.
The government should also endeavour to bridge wage gaps between men and women, and encourage more participation from women in knowledge-based occupations and executive positions — including at the student level.
Funding for technology research and adequate national savings are undoubtedly major drivers of innovation — but so too is diversity and, by extension, creativity — both of which will come from encouraging workforce participation from marginalized groups.
Create more work-integrated learning opportunities: University graduates all face a common problem: A lack of work experience. Employers covet experience — and rightfully so. However, work experience requirements can often be unrealistic. Many highly educated, skilled and driven students do not bother applying to entry-level positions they are qualified for and when they do, they are unsuccessful because the position calls for three to five years of relevant work experience which, in most cases, students could not have attained by the time they graduate.
Work-integrated learning — in the forms of co-op programs, internships and other professional development opportunities — provides valuable work experience for students and, critically, the opportunity to apply the theory, skills and knowledge they’ve gained from the classroom to the workplace.
Not only do these opportunities allow students to earn work experience to bolster their resumés and demonstrate to employers that they have capably functioned in a professional workplace, but it allows them to explore different career paths and decide for themselves which occupation is the best fit.
Support and facilitate adaptability: Even the best economic policies can only go so far. At some point, market events can be overpowering to even the most robust, evidence-based programs and initiatives. Indeed, it was the fallout from the 2008-09 global financial crisis that initially put a spotlight on the issue of high youth unemployment in Canada.
A highly skilled workforce can adapt to macroeconomic trends and is able to transition to other sectors of the economy when employment in their field is negatively affected by global forces beyond their control.
The impact of low oil prices on Fort McMurray in Alberta is the most recent example in Canada of such events.
Displaced workers, including many students, need support and possible retraining for other occupations when they are faced with no other choice.
Finally, universities have an essential role to play in improving adaptability by providing students with well-rounded skill sets that make them capable of transitioning between several job types at different points in their lives.
Ultimately, employment is a measurement of how efficiently an economy is using its labour resources. If high levels of student unemployment persist, Ontario will not be functioning at its highest potential.
To realize the gains from higher education, the five courses of action outlined above should be implemented. Doing so will ensure education remains worth the investment for students and Ontario’s economy benefits from a highly educated, highly skilled workforce.
Justin Bedi is a research and policy analyst at the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA) which represents the interests of more than 140,000 university students at seven institutions across Ontario. For more information, visit www.ousa.ca.
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