dec 10 editorial cartoon

It doesn’t make any sense that publicly funded universities and colleges are pumping out degrees for fields that are not in demand, while society blames students for not making the right career choice when they are 18 and fresh out of high school.

Hundreds of thousands of students head off to a post-secondary institution of some kind every fall with the hopes of learning skills to make themselves more employable and have a good time while they’re at it.

But the reality doesn’t always live up to the hype.

Once they leave the cocoon of higher education, the tribulations of the current job market can be daunting. Often they are competing against many of their peers as well as older workers, who have years of experience on them.

Some are well -off financially and can take the unpaid internship route in the hopes that it leads to a job down the road. Some bide their time in the service or retail industry and are just happy to be working, regardless of the fact they aren’t applying the skills they learned at school. Some decide to return to college or university and invest more money in another certification or degree. Some find jobs in their sector that are only part-time, or don’t pay enough to support someone with large amounts of student debt.

I believe this is directly contributing to why Canada’s youth unemployment rate is nearly double the national rate. I also believe that forward-thinking government policy could remedy some of the challenges faced by post-secondary students in today’s labour market.

Canada is the only OECD country without a national ministry of education. The final report by the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL) in 2011 outlined one of the most important reasons why this terrible for the entire system: without a national strategy, Canada “does not have the information required to assess [post-secondary education’s] capacity in relation to labour-market needs.”

Essentially, no one can accurately match graduates to jobs at a federal level because they don’t have enough information about the education system.

How can federal funding be spent effectively as possible without national benchmarks, standards or goals for post-secondary education? Isn’t this essentially flying blind while simultaneously investing billions of public dollars?

Our society has placed too much emphasis on the “prestige” of a university degree. Universities are perpetuating this myth by accepting students with averages as low as 70 per cent. With reduced government funding, this glut of undergrads pays for the fancy research labs and facilities schools love to brag about on their brochures. Every parent wants to see their special little snowflake succeed and university is seen as the pinnacle of post-secondary education options.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

In Germany and Switzerland vocational training begins at the high school level. Students can apply for highly sought-after apprenticeships in the private sector, which are roughly 70 per cent work experience and 30 per cent in class study, and are also paid.

That’s right, they are paid to go to school and learn a trade. That is why 60 per cent of their youth opt for the apprenticeship path.

A student there is paid to apply classroom learning on the job, with the option to further their education after their apprenticeship is up. A student here pays for their training in the hopes that an employer will grant them a job. The student shoulders all the risk and the majority of the financial burden while corporations (both the college and the potential employer) reap the maximum benefit.

Granted, this system isn’t as easy to import as most German engineering. These European systems work because of their large manufacturing and banking sectors, along with strong government regulation and oversight. To import the system into our economy would require a complete overhaul of our education system from elementary to post-secondary. It would also be massively expensive, with most of the cost falling on the shoulders of private business (read: not happening). That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from their methods and apply what we can.

In Ontario, we have the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program (OYAP) which offers practical training and work experience in a variety of trades in exchange for high school credits. Universities are offering co-op placements that coincide with their bachelor programs to get students out of the classroom and give them real-world responsibilities. These are great starts, but more needs to be invested in programs that give students real world skills.

At the same time, we need to ensure a university degree remains relevant. David Helfand, former president of Quest University in B.C. argued in a 2014 article in The Globe and Mail that “We shouldn’t conflate education and training… a university education ought to be about learning to think, not about acquiring a set of employable skills.”

Someone needs to drive this mentality into our society’s collective consciousness and end the dysfunctional mess of expensive disappointment that is our education system. This is an extremely complex problem that one 800-word editorial can’t hope to analyze in its entirety. Let’s hope the new government doesn’t push this issue to the back burner.