Make Your Education Work for You

Canadian students have long been attracted to university by the promise of prompt and rewarding employment upon graduation. Yet each year, many graduates find themselves unemployed or underemployed, and are left feeling that their respective universities let them down. But have they?

Preparing graduates for a defined labour market isn’t the purpose of university. Or at least it hasn’t been in the past. Not according to Paul Smith, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Career Educators and Employers (CACEE). “University education isn’t about jobs,” he says. “It’s about the pursuit of knowledge and about getting to know yourself.”

As Paul explains, previous generations of university graduates had much greater odds of securing employment, which fed into the mistaken assumption that a degree leads to a job. But what many people overlook is the fact that in the past, having a university education was something of a rarity; today, it’s much more common.

“It used to be that simply having a Bachelor’s degree made you more attractive as a job candidate,” says Paul. “In 2011, a university degree isn’t so rare, and the market has adjusted. Many students think that finding a job is automatic upon graduation, but it isn’t. Innovations in career development, including experiential learning programs and the introduction of new technologies, have improved the path to the workforce, but the essential purpose of a university education has not substantially changed. Universities are still offering exactly what they always did; it’s the market that has changed. Now more than ever, students have to prepare for the workplace in other ways beyond academic success.”

Know yourself—then let others know

Knowing yourself, and what you have to offer an employer, is key to making the transition from school to work. Too often, when students graduate with a generalized arts degree rather than a professional degree such as business or engineering, they feel they don’t have “employable” or marketable skills. That isn’t the case at all. Liberal arts degrees equip you with the ability to think critically and look at complex problems from a variety of perspectives—both of which are assets in any workplace.

As Paul explains, it isn’t a matter of liberal arts or social sciences students lacking employable skills; rather, it’s a matter of them not knowing how to show employers the ways that their skill sets can be applied on the job.

“Students enrolled in professional or applied programs like business, engineering, or education see a much more linear connection to the workplace, and they understand the potential paths to the workplace,” says Paul. “Many of those students are also enrolled in co-op or internship programs, so they may see the way even more clearly. This is a tremendous advantage for these students because they learn how to express their experience in words that employers can understand,” says Paul. “Students enrolled in the arts or humanities need to make an extra effort to define the pathways for themselves, and for the employers they favour. Listing roles such as vice-president of a club or organization isn’t very helpful to a prospective employer. The emphasis should be on what the student can offer the employer.” For example, if you’ve served as vice-president of your student society, you could highlight your skills in leadership, organization and multi-tasking.

Kevin Bolen, Director of Student Employment and Engagement at the University of Regina Career Centre, couldn’t agree more. Kevin and his staff work with students to help them articulate what they’ve learned in university in a way that will be meaningful to employers. One of the best ways of doing that, he says, is to create a skills-based résumé that conceptualizes what the student has learned in the classroom. “If you’ve only got classroom experience, you can draw on anecdotal examples to show how working on research projects or giving presentations leads to employable skills,” Kevin says.

A smoother school-to-work transition

Finding ways of articulating what you have to offer an employer is a great start. But TalentEgg founder Lauren Friese says that the obstacles to a smooth transition from school to work go beyond that. In her opinion, the problem is a systemic one that can only be resolved through cooperation from all sides: students and parents, but also career educators, employers and government.

“The reality is that about 75 percent of Canadian students are enrolled in programs and schools that only about 10 percent of employers will consider hiring from,” says Lauren. “That’s a huge, huge systemic problem. It’s an incredibly small pool of students that are recruited from undergraduate programs. Yet we encourage students to pursue post-secondary education with the expectation that when they graduate, they will be able to find meaningful employment….We need to do something today to better align the goals of students, educators and the government.”

Lauren first recognized the problem after graduating from Queen’s University in 2005 with a degree in economics and being unable to find work in her field—in spite of her good grades and long list of extracurricular activities. Unsure of what else to do, she enrolled in a Masters of Economic History at the London School of Economics. After graduating with what she calls “an even artier degree,” Lauren was shocked to find work in England immediately. “It was really easy and seamless to transition from being a student to being a worker,” says Lauren. Once she moved back home, she applied the experience she’d gained overseas to help young Canadians find their way in the workplace; she founded TalentEgg, a job website and career resource for students and new graduates.

Make your voice heard

One of TalentEgg’s newest features is Student Voice, which launched in March 2011 and offers students “a platform to share their job search stories—the good and the bad—as well as share ideas on how to improve campus recruitment,” says Lauren. As of April 4, the daily Metro newspaper began featuring a new Student Voice entry every week in their education section. “Our intention is to raise awareness of the problem students have [in transitioning to the workforce] so that change can happen starting with the people who can make a difference, like the government and employers,” says Lauren.

As she sees it, the most important change employers can make is to start recruiting “outside the lines”; that is, to consider hiring students who don’t necessarily match all the criteria employers are looking for, but who offer valuable attributes and can be taught the necessary hard skills in-house.

CACEE’s Paul doesn’t think the problem is that big, but he agrees that employers might benefit from casting a wider net when recruiting. The nearly exclusive focus on professional programs appears to be a uniquely Canadian phenomenon. In the U.S. and the U.K., people with generalist degrees are recruited alongside their professional peers. But changing this behaviour alone will not fix the problem, because it will not add to the numbers being hired.

The actual number of unemployed or underemployed graduates is very hard to establish with certainty, as there are many sets of conflicting statistics. Paul explains that the Council of Ontario Universities data shows that Ontario graduates enjoy a 95 percent placement rate. Yet data from the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development suggests that Canada has an unacceptably high rate of underemployed university graduates.

“While we have a difficult time establishing the actual rate of unemployment or underemployment, there can be no denying that it happens, and it happens too often,” says Paul. l

Guaranteed improvement

Kevin and his staff at the University of Regina Career Centre are committed to helping place liberal arts students in career-related employment, and have done very well in meeting that goal. The students’ successful placement rate is a testament to the validity of Lauren and Paul’s belief that graduates with a generalized degree can be a wonderful addition to the workplace, and shouldn’t be passed over simply because of their programs of study.

“We’ve actually had liberal arts students hired to do accounting work and human resources work,” says Kevin. “What we find is that they’re very competitive with our business students, if given the opportunity, because they can articulate their ability to look at the world from multiple perspectives.” He points out that learning hard skills from programs such as business or engineering are important for certain jobs—but equally as important are the critical and analytical thinking skills that are acquired in a liberal arts program.

With a view to helping all students succeed post-graduation, Kevin instigated a groundbreaking new initiative that was launched at the University of Regina in September 2010. The UR Guarantee Program offers first-year students the option to sign up for a range of activities during their undergraduate degree that will enrich their educational experience and better prepare them for the workforce. Activities include extracurricular involvement and community service. If, within six months of graduating, participants haven’t found career-related employment, the University will waive tuition and course fees for an additional 30 credit hours of undergraduate courses the following year.

Kevin expects that many students will be excited by the prospect of either a guaranteed job or the opportunity for free additional schooling. But he’s more excited about the thought of students being exposed to extracurriculars that will play a huge hand in making students more employable. “The real benefit of the program is in actually doing those activities that will prepare you for the workforce,” he says. Almost 25 percent of new students enrolled in the UR Guarantee Program in 2010, and Kevin hopes to see that number climb in the coming years.

All signs indicate that by empowering participants with a more balanced university experience, the UR Guarantee Program will help students reap big rewards after graduation. Kevin’s team recently conducted a survey of Saskatchewan employers to identify which skill sets they look for in employees. He was pleased to learn that employers are looking for well-rounded individuals.

“The feedback we’re getting is that it’s actually more important [for prospective hires] to be open-minded and multi-faceted than to have a specific skill set,” he says. “Employers want to hire a whole person… We’ve found that employers who are willing to interview people with a different educational background than what they originally had in mind have been pleasantly surprised with the type of candidates they’re seeing.”

Better incentives, better results

As Kevin tells it, many Saskatchewan employers are beginning to shift their thinking when it comes to hiring practices, which is definitely a step in the right direction. But Lauren feels that the onus shouldn’t be on employers to do all the heavy lifting. To her mind, the government should offer incentives for employers to consider a wider range of students, including graduates from professional and generalized programs, so that the burden of providing in-house training can be lessened.

Paul agrees that a large part of the solution must involve funding and support to help employers train new hires, and to help career educators facilitate a smoother school-to-work transition. “We need to help students not just get into university, but also have a place to go when they get out,” he says. “So much focus is put on access, but getting in is not enough; we also have to help students move along to the next thing after graduation.”

The best way to prepare students for the workforce, he says, is to introduce the idea of career planning much sooner. “Students leaving high school need to understand what the purpose of the different educational options are,” says Paul. “And they should choose wisely.” He points out that he has yet to read a university’s mission statement and find the words “job,” “career” or “employment.” Nevertheless, students are told by parents, educators and politicians that a university degree leads to work.

Paul encourages students to enroll in the programs that interest them, be they professional or generalist in nature. Arts degrees such as economics, political science and English are always valuable; they provide universal skills that can be applied to a range of careers, and have an important place in the labour market alongside business and engineering degrees. Paul just wants to caution students that they should reexamine their expectations of what a degree will bring them.

“University isn’t about preparing for work,” he says. “It’s about preparing for life.”

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