University education not the payoff it once was

CIBC study indicates 30 per cent of degree-holders in Canada earn less than the median national income

As the summer ends, many young people are returning to universities across the country. However, for a large number of students, the future is uncertain when it comes to securing a job upon graduation – especially one that pays well.

A recent study by CIBC finds that Canadian university graduates are not earning what they once did, and the rising cost of getting that degree is shrinking the payoff even more. The number of Canadians holding university degrees is climbing. Yet according to the study, the proportion of Canadian university graduates who make less than half the national median income is the largest among the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) group of advanced economies.

Published on Aug. 26 of this year, the study cites high enrolment rates in fields which do not result in high-paying employment, namely the humanities and social sciences. Graduates from these fields are less likely to find work in their field, are unemployed longer after finishing school, and are generally earning less over their lifetimes. Additionally, the costs of obtaining a degree are rising fast – tuition fees for undergraduates have risen by an average annual rate of four per cent in the past five years, more than double the rate of inflation.

So, is getting a degree, especially from a non-technical or professional program, still worth it?

David Ness, director of the student counselling and career centre at the University of Manitoba, says that every degree holds benefits, and will make the recipient more employable, but the skills obtained from degrees in the social sciences and humanities are more nuanced.

“When students come out of dentistry or nursing they know what skills they have. A graduate from an arts or humanities program, on the other hand, may not be able to easily identify the skills they have learned. These fields teach students things like critical thinking, writing, or communication—what some people term ‘soft skills’—which are still extremely important in finding success in the job market. However, these skills are perhaps not as easily identified by the students or employers,” said Ness.

Ness also says that in order for students to find success in the workforce after graduation, they need to do more than simply attend classes and get good grades.

“We encourage students to get involved in their learning as much as possible. Look for other opportunities to get involved. The university’s co-curricular record, for example, is a great way for students to deepen their experience, and make themselves more attractive to employers after graduation,” said Ness.

This extra involvement and effort on the part of students has become essential for students to break into the job market. The proliferation of unpaid internships speaks to the need for students from non-professional and non-technical fields to make that extra step in transition from school to paid work.

However, even with a good record and extra-curricular involvement, some graduates are still finding it difficult to penetrate the job market.

“The jobs just aren’t there,” says Mike Goodkin, a sociology graduate from the University of Manitoba, who has been looking for work for the past two years, but has had to settle for unpaid internships and is about to embark on another.

“The jobs you do see require at least one to two years of experience, which I have gotten from being an intern, but I still haven’t been able to land a paying job. I’m lucky in that I can afford to do this unpaid work. Some students have debt and don’t have that luxury.”

There are a number of reasons why it is difficult for some graduates to find work. Baby boomers are not retiring at the rates that they should be, and government cuts have increased competition for white-collar jobs. Those that are fresh out of school are at a disadvantage when competing against adults who have 10 or 20 years of work experience already. However, these changes in Canada’s economy open up opportunities for young people who are creative and entrepreneurial, argues Ness.

“Those with specialized skills who see cuts in their fields may not be able to transition to other lines of work as easily as someone who has these so-called ‘soft skills’ that someone with a bachelor of arts has.”

It is clear that a university education no longer ensures a good paying job. A bachelor’s degree, especially one from the humanities or social sciences, should be viewed now as more of a single step in a longer process that could include graduate school, internships, or other training. Students need to be aware of what that piece of paper will get them and what it won’t, and adjust their expectations of what awaits them upon graduation accordingly.

1 Comment on "University education not the payoff it once was"

  1. Julien Vaughan | September 9, 2013 at 1:13 pm |

    First off some numbers: 25% of Canadians between 25 and 64 have a university degree. So if we take the 30% that are below the median salary that makes 7% of Canadians. Not an outrages amount by any means. I think the one aspect that inspires a reaction from us, the university students, is the fact that this proportion is probably higher than it was for our parent’s generation and will most likely continue to grow. I will hypothesis two reason to explain this.

    First off I think on a culture level we promoted higher study’s more than labour or professional jobs in recent years, thus creating a shortage for the latter. Offer and demand laws being what they are this has created situation where someone doing a 1 year course as an industrial mechanic can make more than say someone coming off a 3 year degree in political science. That’s just the way it is and will continue to be in years to come, this idea that having a university degree will guarantee you a good wage and a good life is bullocks and shouldn’t be the reason you choose to pursue a higher education.

    Second of all I think a big factor that was omitted in the article is the disparity between the rich and the poor is increasing. You can talk about median salary all you want but fact of the matter is more people will be below the median salary as this disparity increases. Degree or no degree, there is no sign of this trend reversing, either in Canada or anywhere else around the world.

    I find David Ness suggestion to get involved with the sole purpose that it will look good on your resume perverse. Get involved because you want to get involved, because it will make you acquire skills that will make you more valuable in the work force not because it will “look good” on paper. I also find other of Mr Ness arguments quite weak. Baby boomers not retiring, you are competing with people who have more experience. If you set out with that kind of mindset of course you’re going to fail. Now I will admit I lack experience in the matter but it seems to me that if there’s no jobs in your field just make one, I can’t imagine someone going through university and not having some ideas of what they really wanted to do when they finished so just go do it. Think of it as an unpaid internship that will look good on your resume if you want to but just do it. Don’t give up and give it your all and don’t worry about being under the median salary line because at the end of the day if you are doing something you love and are passionate about you will be above the median level in happiness.

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