University grads have the skills to succeed. Now where are the jobs?

Getting the right skills for the job market is a hot topic these days. What skills are employers looking for? Are students prepared for the workforce? These questions are being discussed on university campuses, debated in national newspapers, and considered by policy-makers across jurisdictions. In a challenging labour market, it’s really no surprise that this conversation is capturing peoples’ attention. For those who are out of work, underemployed, or looking to get a first job, gaining the right skills holds the promise of more or better work in the future.

For universities, there is a lot wrapped up in these conversations. It raises questions about the purpose of a university degree: Is it about building the skills to land a job? Fostering democratic participation? Creating knowledge to serve the public interest? While many universities are already shifting their programming to focus on skills development, some academics are encouraging universities to find other ways of articulating the value of a degree – the economic case, they argue, sells university education short.

In Ontario, the recently released report of the Premier’s Highly Skilled Workforce Expert Panel puts skills in the spotlight. Ensuring that Ontario’s workforce is “equipped with skills that meet all the needs of the jobs of today and tomorrow” is advanced as a pillar of a strong economy. The report encourages postsecondary institutions to shift their focus to providing students with needed skills. It also suggests that universities could do a better job at measuring and credentialing skills development. As pressure mounts on universities to focus on preparation for work, it makes sense to take a look at how graduates are actually faring in the labour market.

University graduates consistently have good employment outcomes relative to the general population. In 2015, according to Statistics Canada, 75 per cent of Ontarians with a university degree were employed, while the employment rate for the province as a whole was only 62 per cent. University graduates also have an earnings advantage. In 2011, university graduates in Ontario had an average income of almost $75,400 compared to $47,700 for those with a postsecondary certificate or diploma and $38,800 for Ontarians with a high school education.

While employment outcomes do tend to be better for graduates from professional programs, they are also strong for students from the social sciences and humanities. The Ontario University Graduate Survey reports that six months after graduation, 88 per cent of university graduates were employed, including 86 percent of social sciences grads and 87 per cent of humanities grads. Recent research by the Education Policy Research Initiative (EPRI) suggests that a liberal arts degree delivers steadily increasing earnings, similar to math or science degrees. This all suggests that universities are in fact equipping students for success in the job market.

Rather than thinking of skills simply as occupation-specific, a broader conception that captures transferable skills and basic competencies might help to better understand how a bachelor degree serves graduates in their working lives. A survey of 90 large private sector employers in Canada revealed that “soft skills” including teamwork, communication, problem-solving, and relationship building are most in demand. Two-thirds of employers surveyed also believed that university graduates were generally prepared for the labour market. This confirms the idea that while a university degree may not prepare an individual for a specific job, it is a solid preparation for a life of productive and rewarding work (which may include several jobs, often across different fields or industries).

It’s clear that a university education is serving students well in the labour market post-graduation. So, why all the talk about skills development? As we already know, the supposed “skills gap” is largely fictional. Perhaps politicians are focused on skills because addressing the demand side of the problem – job creation – is a much more difficult challenge to tackle. But policy options for job creation must be on the agenda. We owe it to today’s students who, after paying high tuition fees and taking on heavy debt loads, are graduating into a labour market that is short on good jobs and in need of a boost.

Focusing too narrowly on skills could also come at a high cost for universities and society. There is no doubt that universities serve as economic pillars in our communities, but accessible university education also has a key civic role. Students learn to think critically and are encouraged to engage with the tough questions facing their generation like addressing climate change, systemic racism, and growing inequality. In these challenging times, we certainly cannot afford to lose sight of the social, democratic, and civic functions of higher education.