The Value of an Education

“If I don’t use my degree in my future career, was it a waste?” It’s an all-too-familiar story: students head off to university with career paths in mind but, for one reason or another, are unable to find work in their chosen fields after graduating. Thanks to the job crunch, more and more young people are finding themselves in careers that are loosely or entirely unrelated to their studies. The scarcity of positions in certain fields, such as the arts or scientific research, means that new graduates are instead applying the more generalized skills they acquired in school to jobs they never imagined for themselves.

Post-secondary education is more important today than ever before. It is estimated that 75% of jobs in Canada require a university or college education of some sort. Indeed, many require education above and beyond those levels. Gone are the days where people entered the work force in high numbers out of high school. And yet the disparity between what people do for a living and what they studied in school is growing as well—which means many of us have specialized skills that are being squandered and deteriorating from lack of use. As education costs skyrocket, is the value of an education the same as it once was?

At face value, everyone would certainly answer yes. Societies directly benefit from highly-educated populations; educated people almost universally command higher incomes than uneducated persons, leading to positive economic growth and affluence. The question is whether enough is being done to ensure there are opportunities for people to put their educations to direct, practical use. A person working in their field of choice is almost certain to be happier and more productive; we derive a sense of satisfaction from doing work we enjoy. That’s not to say you can’t do good work in a job you didn’t expect to have. People certainly can find satisfaction from work they never thought they’d enjoy, and come to embrace even the most unexpected career path. And any struggling new graduate will tell you that when it comes to paying the bills, just about any work is good work.

So, perhaps the problem isn’t necessarily the risk of a degree being wasted, but rather the deficit of good opportunities in today’s job market. Governments and corporations should be playing a more active role in generating a diversified economy that allows people from a broad range of educational backgrounds to employ their skills. Rather than focusing on specific sectors like natural resources, economic forces should be refocused to generate knowledge-based jobs and to support arts and sciences that allow creative and technical work. We would all gain from that kind of prosperity and growth.

However, the onus isn’t entirely off individuals. We need to be responsible for our own educations and what we do with them. Aspiring students shouldn’t be afraid of pursuing hard sciences and demanding professions, like medicine or law—they’re where the action is, not to mention the money. It’s important to explore different career opportunities to see where demand is before making choices in specialized education. At the same time, new graduates need to be flexible in what they do for work; patience is a virtue, and the dream job may not present itself right away (but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen).

This generation is bright and innovative, and we will be creative in forging our own paths. Even if our original plans aren’t in the cards, a little planning and forethought can make all the difference in attaining a successful, productive career. To answer the question, an education is never a waste—and if we make the right choices ahead of time, the question may never arise.

One Response to “The Value of an Education”

  1. Dave Lindskoog

    I find myself quite frequently having the “how do you define ‘using your degree'” conversation with students and recent graduates. There are more levels of nuance than you’d think. If you study psychology, and you end up doing event planning, is that using your degree? If you study chemistry, and you end up as an adventure tour guide (and loving it), is that NOT using your degree? Ditto for studying engineering and later becoming a career advisor (a colleague of mine).

    I always find it helpful to think of things from the employer’s standpoint. They want someone who can come in and do the job well with minimal training. That means they need to have a certain skill set, and some experience. Having a specific academic major often doesn’t make any difference to that.

    In any case, it’s a worthwhile discussion to have. Nice post!


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