Education the ticket to employment in Saskatchewan

August 29, 2013 - 1:15pm
University of Saskatchewan - Michael Aynsley/News Talk Radio
University of Saskatchewan - Michael Aynsley/News Talk Radio

While employers snatch up SIAST graduates like hot cakes, the University of Saskatchewan believes its students are not getting less value from their degree.

The University of Saskatchewan wants to provide students with useful skills, said Brett Fairbairn, provost and vice-president academic.

"For a university education, it's often about preparing for specific professional employment but it can also be about acquiring skills that will be useful no matter what people do," he said, adding employers and students both say some of the most useful skills are critical thinking and the ability to express oneself.

"Those sorts of skills will always be in demand for every job. In a general sense, I think that kind of education will be increasingly in demand,” Fairbairn said.

A recent report by CIBC World Markets said that students might not get the value they should out of increasingly more expensive university degrees if they don’t specialize in fields in high demand.

The report suggests that while post-secondary education is still the best route to a well-paying, quality job, the premium is dropping as too few students are graduating from programs that lead to good jobs.

Lauren Friese graduated from Queen’s University but found the transition from school to work a difficult one. Instead of finding her way into the workforce, she pursued a Masters from the London School of Economics.

It was overseas that she realized the UK has better resources for young people entering the labour market. She moved back to Canada to create Talent Egg, a job site and resource for students and recent graduates.

The Saskatchewan story

In Saskatchewan, the highest rate of employment growth since 2007 has been among those with a university degree, according to Sask Trends Monitor.

“Education really is your ticket in a place like Saskatchewan but don’t be frustrated if you don’t get the job of your dreams immediately at the end of it. It is a very tough, competitive labour market,” said Armine Yalnizyan, senior economist with Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The biggest bang for students’ educational buck is specialized and professional fields such as medicine and law, according to the CIBC report. The fields of humanities and social sciences, on the other hand, carry much greater risk, while students in health or business face a more limited risk of ending up with lower incomes.

The probability of finding a job in Saskatchewan increases significantly as the level of education increases, according to Sask Trends Monitor. If you look at people aged 25 to 54, just over half of people with less than Grade 9 are working.

That increased to 83 per cent among those who have graduated from high school and 88 per cent among post-secondary graduates—regardless of whether they held a certificate, diploma, or university degree. Even 80 per cent of people with in-complete post-secondary are getting jobs.

In Saskatchewan, having a Grade 12 education will likely find you a job but it doesn’t mean higher wages. People with a post-secondary certificate earn 17 per cent more than those with a high school diploma. University graduates earn 20 per cent more than those with a certificate or diploma.

Fairbairn said the University of Saskatchewan gets great feedback about graduates in a variety of programs.

"One of the things we hear from employers is that they really appreciate students from the University of Saskatchewan because they bring with them that sort of prairie ethic of hard work, constructive contributions, kind of always putting in a bit extra to make things come out better," said Fairbairn, adding a lot of arts and science students end up in management positions such as banking, advertising, writing or research.

Pursuing post-secondary education

Fresh high school grads have been told their entire life that if they go to university, they’ll get a job, Friese said.

"Nobody says, ‘Go to university, study this, and you'll get a job.’ It's more of this idea that you have to go and take that level of schooling and then the world is your oyster," she said, adding you can't blame students entirely for making ill-informed choices.

"I think that a lot of students are choosing to pursue degree subjects and areas of expertise that are not necessarily directly related to what the labour market is demanding,” Friese said.

“I think that the larger question has to be, 'What is the purpose of post-secondary education?' Is it in all cases supposed to be directly career prep or are we looking to train our young people to be better thinkers, to analyze problems in a better way? Perhaps should we be looking to employers to open up their hiring to provide more training so that even students that choose to study programs like philosophy, sociology or like me, economics, can be given a shot to prove themselves to learn on the job and meet the needs of the labour market?"

Most programs at SIAST provide work experience, according to Larry Rosia, president and CEO of SIAST.

“It helps our students understand and get an appreciation for the skills and the type of work they will be doing,” said Rosia, adding in most cases the students are hired as a result of the time they spent with an employer.

Approximately 172 out of 3,724 courses offered at the U of S in the 2012-13 year had an experiential learning component (clinical, co-op, internship and/or practicum). They have a goal by 2015 to increase the number of students engaging in experiential learning by 20 per cent.
Transition to the workforce

The responsibility of educators is to be transparent and communicate with students that higher education isn't necessarily going to land you a job right out of school, said Friese.

One of the best ways for a student to become marketable as they approach graduation is to have relevant, meaningful work experience. It not only makes their resume more appealing but it will help them to have a reasonable expectation when searching for jobs and aid them during the interview process, she said.

"I don't think the problem is that institutions should stop funneling students through programs that don't necessarily lead directly to schools," Friese said, adding academic institutions need to be clearer with incoming students about their career prospects.

Academic institutions also have to understand that most students see university as a gateway to a career and implement career training into the curriculum on a mandatory basis, she said.

Yalnizyan goes one step further to suggest work experience during and after school shouldn’t be free.

“These are unpaid internships. What are you going to do to support yourself? There is no guarantee that this will lead to a full-time job. If you simply expand the number of unpaid internships, you haven’t solved the problem at all. If fact, you’ve strengthened the employers’ hands to what is starting to look more and more like free labour,” she said.

Assessing admission numbers at post-secondary levels

The University of Saskatchewan assesses its admission numbers on a college-by-college basis. Each college is closely in touch with its graduates’ employers and then available seats are revised based on the demand from students and demand from the market.

"For example, our college of engineering just last spring was discussing an improved planned expansion of their numbers," said Fairbairn.

 "We need to respond to where the student interest is right now but we also want to base long-term decisions based on projections.”

SIAST is student-focused but industry driven, according to Rosia. Over 700 industry partners serve as an advisory for SIAST. They review the curriculum to ensure the skills are appropriate for the industry.

“We really rely on industry to tell us where the demand is. Certainly students understand that and they take the programs where they know there is going to be employment at the other end,” he said, adding industry, government and education need to work together to ensure the province has the graduates it needs to keep the economy going.

At the moment, SIAST programs and graduates are in such demand that the Kelsey campus in Saskatoon is looking at a potential $225-million expansion.

Underemployment plaguing grads

Friese and Yalnizyan strongly suggest post-secondary schooling but both indicate that graduate underemployment is a huge issue in Canada.

"I would say the stats that showcase high youth unemployment don't actually mean very much at all because they don't take into considering underemployment. Some people have estimated that the true number as you include underemployment is closer than 50 per cent," said Friese.

"Find any group of recent grads and ask them, 'Who has a meaningful job that required a degree?' Half of them will say yes and half of them will say no. That number goes down in months and years passed."

Students contribute to the problem, in some cases, by not properly preparing themselves for their career by not seeking out relevant work experience while they are in school, by not taking on personal introspection while they are in school, and by not doing the work to articulate to an employer what they are good at, according to Friese.

Sometimes students and post-secondary institutions aren’t to blame at all. Many young graduates who have been locked out of the labour market since the recession have chosen to pursue higher education, according to Yalnizyan.

“I think it is a perfectly rational strategy to say, ‘When I don’t have a job and it is getting more competitive to have one, maybe the right strategy is to make myself more employable by improving my qualifications,” said Yalnizyan.

Young kids are having trouble finding their footing for a number of reasons, she said. There is huge growth in the use of temporary foreign workers, which are often entry-level jobs that young Canadians would be taking. Secondly, employers are recognizing that young graduates are becoming desperate and offering unpaid internships.

“Which actually makes an already tilted playing field more tilted because, really, the only people who can afford to do unpaid internships are people who already got a job to support them or a family with some sort of set up where they can afford to do unpaid work,” said Yalnizyan.

If companies aren’t hiring Canadian graduates because they don’t have experience but turn around and hire someone who will work for cheaper from another country, the issue was never about work experience, she said.

“If the answer is also, ‘I’m going to hire you and get you experience without any pay but I won’t hire you at the back end’, that doesn’t really pass the sniff test,” said Yalnizyan.

The point is, people who seek higher education aren’t guaranteed a job but protect your rights as a worker and work hard to give yourself an edge over other candidates. A good bet, they suggest, is seeking education that helps you make or create something.

Yalnizyan said just because a graduate cannot get a job in their field, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do anything.

“Make it clear to yourself and those around you that you want to grow and expand,” she said.

Young workers job hopping

Young people are changing their jobs more often.

After years of steady increasing tenure, average tenure in Saskatchewan is now starting to drop. From 2007 to 2012, the average tenure dropped from 116 months to 112 months.

Generation Y grew up with parents that told them to aspire to have a better work-life experience than they did, said Friese.

"I think that that message banged into our heads ... has lead to a generation that if they are dissatisfied with their work experience, they will move on. They are doing something that their parents told them was a good thing-- to seek something better,” said Friese.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing but it changes the way employers approach retention. It's less about moving up the ladder and more about long vacation and meaningful work that your employees can be passionate about, she said.

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