Monday, 11 March 2013

Shortage of jobs or shortage of workers?

It’s hard to know what to believe these days with all the mixed messages you see and hear. On the one hand, there are warnings of a skills shortage. For example, a recent survey by Randstad Canada found the following: “According to survey respondents, two thirds (66%) of Canadian employers have trouble finding the right people for specific jobs. And even more (58%) believe Canadian employers are experiencing problems finding highly qualified people. Additionally, 55 per cent of Canadian employers say they expect a shortage of highly qualified employees within the next three years. While more than half of Canadian respondents also say they expect to see a shortage of staff in specific jobs.”

On the other hand, post-secondary students are being told that a university education no longer guarantees a good job and comfortable existence (did it ever?) and to expect to be underemployed in a never ending circle of temporary positions. For example, the headline of an article in a recent issue of MacLean’s Magazine read: “The new underclass: Why an entire generation of ambitious, smart and well-educated Canadians have no future.” (italics mine) At the end of January the CBC aired a documentary called ‘Generation Jobless’ which also focused on the plight of new university graduates struggling to find work and toiling in jobs that don’t require a degree.

So what gives? Many employers are saying they cannot find the highly skilled workers they need, yet a number of university graduates are struggling to find work where they can utilize the knowledge and skills they gained through their education. According to the experts, the problem is a mismatch between the skills employers are looking for and the skills many of those looking for work have to offer. I can see this to a certain extent when talking about specific technical skills, but again there are conflicting messages. For example, the Canadian Association of Career Educators and Employers (CACEE) conducted a survey of 450 Canadian employers who said that the core skills they value most include “communication, analytical ability and a strong work ethic,” as well as teamwork and problem-solving skills. Aren’t these just the skills that many university students develop?

So what is a current university student to think or, more importantly, do? One piece of advice I’ve come across is to tailor your education to labour market demands; for example, find out what occupations or professions are growing and in demand and pursue a degree relevant to those areas. I would caution any student about using this approach because predicting where demand will be in the labour market in five or even one year can be a bit like forecasting the weather! As a matter of fact, the MacLean’s article referred to above begins with an example of a university graduate who did just that. She got a degree in applied linguistics with the goal of teaching English as a second language: “She chose a vocation that, by unanimous opinion, represented a path to steady employment – teaching English as a second language to the thousands of immigrants pouring into B.C.” By the time she graduated in 2008 with “the gold standard of ESL qualifications,” government funding for language transition programs had been significantly reduced and “the entry level position she imagined would launch her career never materialized.”

So what do I advise? Two things for today. First, regardless of what you are studying, becoming involved in activities outside of the classroom and even off campus is key to learning about - sometimes even creating – work opportunities, making important connections and building your skills base. (If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll recognize this is a theme that I and guest bloggers come back to again and again.) Second, be critical about what you see and hear regarding what the labour market holds for today’s graduates. Some of it can be quite alarmist. An article on the University Affairs website about the CBC documentary referred to above makes some excellent points about how statistics and labour market forecasts can be used to paint a particular picture. For example, the 15% youth unemployment rate referred to in the documentary includes all Canadians 15 to 24 years old. However, the unemployment rate for 25 to 29 year olds, which includes more individuals who have completed a degree, is just under six percent. Wouldn’t that be a better group to compare university graduates with?

I’ll end this post by saying I in no way want to leave the impression that finding a good job after you complete your degree will be easy. How soon you find work, the opportunities that will be available, where you’ll end up, etc., etc. depend upon so many factors, a number of which you have little or no influence upon. But I think you gain a lot of getting a university of education and the value of your degree should not be measure only by the jobs you work in over the course of your career.

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