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Kristine St-Laurent >>

“I have a master’s degree...but I’m serving sushi.”

By Kristine St-Laurent

Upon completing high school, most young people entering the labour market are fed a general formula for “success,” composed something along the lines of: “Go to university. Work hard. Get more than one degree—and voila! Job offers will be waiting for you.”  Missing from that oft-repeated mantra are some important caveats: You might not be able to get into your program of choice.  You may graduate with little or no practical experience in your field of study, as internships are highly competitive.  With few exceptions, you will be competing for a limited number of “entry-level” jobs that require two or more years of experience. You will likely be turned down for your dream job.  Multiple times.

Despite hard work and best efforts, the majority of fresh-faced graduates experience a delayed entry into career-oriented jobs, find themselves underemployed—or both.  Very rarely are young graduates told what they actually need to be prepared for in the contemporary job market: By day, they will be sending out job applications—perhaps into the triple-digit range.  By night, they may end up a masters’-qualified sushi server for the greater part of a year before a job offer comes along.

And a year, by most measures, is a relatively brief time to wait. 

The right opportunity may come along within a year of graduation if the job seeker finds the right position with the right employer and applies at the right time.  The average post-secondary (PSE) graduate in Canada will likely be serving sushi (read: underemployed) for three to five years before finding a job that is appropriate to their skill set.[1]

The delay between graduation and finding skills-matched employment, combined with tough job market conditions and sometimes stagnant wages, are harsh realities faced by many graduates entering the labour market. These job market mismatches can also hinder productivity growth in BC. 

Although the link between over-qualification and underemployment tends to diminish as a person accumulates more PSE credentials, the degree to which a worker’s productivity may fall short of potential during spells of underemployment is troubling.  The Business Council of Canada recently pointed to the need to reduce the gap between school and un(der)employment for young PSE graduates.  Amid a rapidly changing work environment, the Business Council of Canada has outlined an ambitious agenda to improve school-to-work transitions for the next generation of workers. 

Work-integrated learning (WIL) is an umbrella term for partnerships between the employer community and the education sector.  Such partnerships can enhance the PSE experience and combine classroom teaching with relevant, hands-on learning for students.  Examples of WIL include:

  • Co-ops
  • Field experiences
  • Internships
  • Mentorship programs
  • Research/issue-based projects (long-term projects targeting specific industry problems)
  • Boot camps and hack-a-thons (short-duration programs co-developed by employers and post-secondary institutions that focus on developing particular skill sets)
  • Competitions (team-based contests in which students develop industry solutions within a short time frame).[2]

BC is home to respected universities and innovative employers.  Providing the next generation of workers with opportunities to acquire the right skills would decrease the incidence of unemployment/underemployment among PSE graduates and contribute to stronger productivity growth.  Work-integrated learning partnerships play a role in training students to obtain skills that help them adapt to the future of work. Additionally, WIL brings the business community “into the tent” by giving employers the opportunity to provide feedback on PSE programs and curricula as well as to advise post-secondary institutions on industry needs. 

Above and beyond making better and more efficient use of scarce human capital, WIL holds out the promise that employers and post-secondary institutions will both gain from healthy cross-sectoral partnerships.  Among the host of benefits that come from business-PSE partnerships, one immediately comes to the forefront: innovation. Improved communication between partner organizations, coupled with strong academic research and cutting-edge industry R&D, can help to foster a favourable environment for innovation, commercialization, and the development of local talent.

The transition from school-to-work is an important one for BC’s economy.  There is little economic benefit to the province when your sushi server knows more about data analysis than about refilling wasabi.