Debate continues over “The New Underclass”

Readers react to assertion that graduates have no future


Last week’s Maclean’s cover story declared that a generation of well-educated, ambitious, smart young Canadians has no future. Many Canadians agree with that assertion, others don’t. Yesterday we offered a sampling of letters we received. Of the more than 200 responses that have flooded in online so far, here are some of the most interesting.

James Knight, President & CEO of the Association of Canadian Community Colleges published this letter:

The Association of Canadian Community Colleges (ACCC) disagrees with Maclean’s case that an entire generation of talented young Canadians have no employment future.

By working with industry, Canada’s public colleges, institutes and polytechnics are innovating, engaging in applied research and bridging skills gaps so that students gain employment in well-paying careers. College graduates find positions in everything from health care to engineering, from information and communications technology to business and entrepreneurship, and from construction to green technologies. Virtually every employment opportunity is supported by a college program.

College graduates find jobs. Depending on the region, 83 to 95 percent of Canadian college grads can look forward to working in their field within six months of graduation.

Canada is facing a demographic deficit. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce says Canada’s human capital crisis is the top constraint to business and employers report new recruitment challenges. ACCC has been engaging with Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, as well as other federal and industry partners to support a balanced approach to education that maximizes the talent and skills of Canadians.

Twenty percent of college learners are university graduates seeking to broaden their career paths or an edge when applying for a job. Canada’s colleges and institutes offer post-graduate programs for positions with high-demand specializations. We have called on the Government of Canada to support jobs and growth by launching a campaign promoting technology and trades professions.

On Macleans.ca “Steve” suggested the problem is too many humanities degrees:

It really is about simple supply and demand. Interesting to see that many of the struggling ‘educated’ tend to come from the humanities. Really, how many more experts in Chaucer, poetry, women’s studies, philosophy, theater & etc can the economy absorb (or even use…No one can fix their car, their roof, or computer by quoting Shakespeare, Locke, or Plato to it)? We new parents of the GenX/Millennial generation must take lessons learned (like my lessons from my useless Linguistics degree) and bring up our children with realistic notions concerning education and return-on-investment (yes, I can feel the educated elite cursing at me for saying that). Living the ‘life-of-the-mind’ is the road to food stamps. We must ask our kids: how long do you want to live in my basement? There is no shame in not getting a 5-yr degree. A 1-year technical certificate can be the road to security. Become a maven in something society really needs…it can be the road to riches (refer to the IT specialists with a few certificates who we pay to fix our networks, computers, etc). First you need to eat, then when squared away you can go play (e.g. get your degree in philosophy if you so desire). I’m sorry – as much as I’ll love and support my children as best as I can, I simply can’t let run off a cliff thinking that their $40K degree in Medieval Lit or some similar piece of paper will be a road to success…at least not without a realistic conversation about it. We must be willing to speak the truth to our kids. BTW, in case anyone is interested, you struggling humanities majors may find this article as a sort of cathartic: google Thomas Benton’s article ‘Graduate School in the Humanities – Just Don’t Go’. I’ll make my kids read this.

On Macleans.ca “Anna” writes that while university isn’t right for everyone, it’s right for her:

I grew up in western Canada, completed a certificate in a business field, and had an office job soon after. However (against my parents’ wishes), I wanted a university education more than anything. I found that, living in a community based around resource extraction, people are sometimes ignorant of social/political issues (example: poverty, environmental problems).

With a desire to know more about the world (in order to best contribute to society), I pursued an undergraduate arts degree and I’m currently working on a graduate degree (with the help of bank loans & scholarships). Based on my own skills, this is the right path for me, even if I end up renting for the rest of my life. However, I see many students who do not have the same enthusiasm for university. Personally, a one-year college program was not enough for me, but a 4 year Arts degree is not right for everyone either.

While people do not “need” a university degree (their skills may be best used elsewhere), the critical thinking/awareness is so valuable. I’ve learned that many of my own opinions were ignorant.

In order to have a more educated society, technical colleges and trade schools should adopt some of the universally useful lessons taught in universities. This would help to change the “stigma” surrounding careers in the trades.

This type of education should be more prevalent in high schools as well. Many of my classmates neglected their school work, assuming that they would “just get a job in the oil patch.” There is more to being an active citizen of Canada than the career that a person chooses.

“Bron” wrote on Macleans.ca that degrees can lead to jobs if graduates are willing to sacrifice:

As someone who recently graduated, and is working in a full time permanent position in the industry I trained for. Why? I had to move to some middle of nowhere place (PS they required 3 years experience, but rural Canada is so scarce on workers, you’ll probably get the job if you apply).

I have to say my generation wants it all; the job, the money, the perks, and all of it in the right place; no sacrifices. A number of classmates are not in similar positions; they work the casual-not-guaranteed-full-time route. Why? Because most of them don’t want to move or sacrifice any part of the ‘dream’ education supposedly promised us.

I think if you aren’t willing to try relocating (or sacrificing some of the expectations promised upon leaving university) can you really complain?

“Benjamin” wrote on Macleans.ca that he’d be better off if older workers would retire.

It’s funny that the things addressed by this article are true, but the issues that keep young people from moving up are ignored. Are people who are employed in Canada legally required to retire? No, that law changed a few years ago. As a result, people at the top of the ladder in companies get to stay there. This means no upward movements within companies, meaning no openings of entry-level positions. No teachers need to retire, so no teaching jobs available. The list goes on, really. My point is that because of this lack of movement, people are unable to acquire employment within the fields they have studied or trained in. So what options does that leave for young people? To try to find employment within the jobs that remain, and then pay the bills and pay the debts back. My opinion here is irrelevant, but I too am at the mercy of debt and a strange economy.

“JellyFish” had this to say:

Universities and colleges are making billions telling people to go to school. So we waste our youth and our money paying for pieces of paper. And when there is no employment we spend more money on more paper. You don’t need school to do 90% of the jobs out there. When I say jobs I mean working in an office. There’s nothing you can’t learn on YouTube or learn just by reading. The sad part is the jobs we want are not even great. They are 9-5, eat your feelings, excel monkey jobs. I know I sound bitter but I have 3 degrees from the top universities in NA and after being unemployed for 2 years the best I got was an internship where I was pounding away on excel and working for people with lesser education than myself. My saving grace was starting my own business and doing my own thing. The reality is there are not enough jobs. The only way there will be more jobs is if more companies are created to offer those jobs.

“Athomeeverywhere” offered an employer’s perspective:

After vounteering my evening as a guest speaker at a B.Comm networking event at UBC, I saw, firsthand, why young people are having such a hard time. I am in a position to offer paid internships and entry-level positions in marketing. I am – without a doubt – a good person to know, in the industry.

Here’s where the disconnect happens: out of 150 attendees, only 1 person (a mature student who was about 5 years older than the others) approached me, during the meet & greet. The other speakers had similar experiences, despite the fact that we each represented a different specialization of the Commerce program.

I know that networking, per se, is not taught at university; but could someone please teach these kids how to make the most out of these kinds of opportunities?

Instead of introducing themselves to the industry person of their choice, they mingled with each other or just left. Any opportunity to make a good connection and – at least – have someone to call when they graduate was tossed away. I brought a box of business cards and left with the same (minus one). If this is indicative of what’s happening in other schools, in other programs and with other students, I can see why it’s becoming so hard to find a job. A real job search starts in first year (or earlier) by just getting to know a few people in the industry you want to join.
That one student was smart enough to call me, when she graduated. My company wasn’t the right fit, so I talked to a few other people I knew and got her a great job with a global ad agency.

“Diane” offered this advice to Macleans.ca readers:

Sometimes, reality bites. Today’s job hunters have the option of surveying the demand and tailoring their skills to the market or not. Forty years ago I maintained that the purpose of most university degrees was to acquire a stamp that said Middle Class, Can be Hired. Fifteen years ago I was telling gifted grade eights that university wasn’t always the answer. Sometimes they might find a job that makes them heaps of money, happy to go to work in a field they love. They might find a job that does one or two of them. In the end, there is nothing wrong with a job that pays the rent etc.and gives you time to pursue your interests. So go to university because you love academics or to train in one of the few professions that do require university training. Don’t put yourself in debt because everyone else is and don’t become an engineer because they are in demand and are well paid.

Money is always a problem, especially in the first couple of decades of working. If you are buying coffee out, always buying new clothes, insist on a car and good restaurants and can’t see any options but separate bedrooms for each of your children, you might want to step back and look hard at the way you choose to spend your money. If you can distinguish between what you WANT and what you NEED, you may find it easier to save. Read the Wealthy Barber for excellent advice on saving and spending on a modest income.




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Debate continues over “The New Underclass”

  1. My take on the issue is more macro-structural; that is, the growth of a new underclass is a symptom and an effect of economic changes in the last 20 years. In the late 90s, when the dot.com, FIRE (finance, investment and real estate), and service sectors were on the rise, we saw the development of a new middle class as well as newly funded programs in humanities and social sciences oriented towards new trends – media, information, culture, and interdisciplinary studies to name a few. Everyone was riding the coattails of a cultural revolution propelled by globalization, credit card consumption, digital technologies, and high-stakes trading and speculation. These same factors have contributed to the gradual erosion of the real economy, such as manufacturing and agriculture. These “productive” sectors are crucial to debt recycling and wealth creation, but have been crippled or constrained by the banks, powerful unions, business outsourcing, migrant labor, and an over-subsidized service sector that includes government workers. So it appears that the present generation of university students were misled to think that they can still pursue a univ degree, get their dream job, and live a middle class life. The economic landscape however has drastically changed, so that a middle class lifestyle, let alone a job commensurate to education or training, is now out of reach. To make matters worse, university is becoming more costly, and students are sinking into more debt. Sure, there are jobs as we speak, and maybe a degree gets one foot in the door, but jobs in a critically volatile and uncertain environment do not make up a “future”.

  2. As a university student, reading about the lack of potential jobs is worrisome. However, I think the university degree I’m receiving is the right fit for me. Both of my younger brothers, one a college student and one nearing the end of high school, are looking at different career paths that don’t involve university education, one as a police officer and the other in trades.
    I strongly feel that junior high and high school teachers and advisors, and even more so, the parents of young people, need to present students with more options than university. As long as the idea that a university degree is more valuable in society and anything else is undesirable is perpetuated, students are going to continue to flood into universities taking classes “to see what they’re interested in” or in a very obscure, not marketable field just because they like it, thus ending up with useless degrees and a pile of student debt.
    There are all sorts of roles to fill in society and so long as we emphasize only one path, young people are going to continue to be unemployed and feel they have no options.

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