Good news for students worried about finding a job after graduation: the current labour force is aging—fast. According to Statistics Canada, in 2005 some 3.6 million Canadian workers (22.1 per cent of the workforce) were within 10 years of retirement, more than double the number in 1986. Baby boomers are charging for the exits across the economy. Example: the Mining Industry Human Resources Council says that as many as 40 per cent of workers will leave the industry by 2010, including senior engineers and geologists. The same percentage of workers in the public sector are due to retire by 2011. In health care, nearly two-thirds of workers are 40 or older.
And that represents just the initial wave of retirees, a tide that is expected to peak in the early 2020s. It doesn’t take an economics major to figure out that with unemployment rates at a 30-year low, and the baby boomers moving on, there are likely to be ample opportunities for the next generation of workers.
Most experts believe that to land the best jobs, you will need at least a university or college degree, or a trades skill—and that far more kids than ever should be enrolling in higher education. A recent study by the Canadian Council on Learning concluded that Canada needs 70 per cent of its workforce to have a post-secondary education by 2016, a massive increase from the 44 per cent of Canadian workers who currently have some form of post-secondary education. The government of Ontario predicts that 60 per cent of new jobs created by 2009 will require post-secondary education; B.C. expects that by 2013, 70 per cent of all new jobs will call for at least some post-secondary training.
But if the consensus view is, “get more education,” what education should you get?
“It is very risky to think that there is going to be a job in a certain field in five to 10 years, and focus your whole life on trying to fill that niche,” says Don Drummond, chief economist at TD Canada Trust. “Because jobs available in five or 10 years might not be the same ones you previously thought about—they might not even exist today.” James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, notes that certain markets can turn on a dime. “In 1998 there was a desperate need for computer science skills, then what appeared to be a market shortage changed almost overnight into a desperate oversupply.” Drummond points to another example. “People were saying in the late 1990s that there wouldn’t be another oil well drilled in Canada for the rest of our lives when it was in the basement at $10 [a barrel]. It’s become the hottest area of economic activity. Who would have known that?”
To prepare for tomorrow’s job market, Drummond says an education is important, but narrowing in on a specific field of expertise isn’t necessarily beneficial. “My advice to people is to train your mind and your capacities first and the subject matter is probably of secondary importance,” he says. Michael Bloom, vice-president of organizational effectiveness and learning at the Conference Board of Canada, adds that young people should be open to all types of post-secondary training and not be fixated on the idea that a university education is the only key to a successful, enjoyable career. “Don’t be put off by the fact that the system emphasizes university,” says Bloom. “You can go to college, you can do an apprenticeship and have a great career that people admire.”
The more-schooling-is-always-better view is not, however, unanimous. In their upcoming book, Ivory Tower Blues, University of Western Ontario sociology professors James Côté and Anton Allahar write that in the 1990s, Canada graduated twice as many university students as there were jobs created requiring a university degree. And, they say, more than four times the number of community college graduates came out of the system than could be absorbed in new jobs requiring a college education. There are lots of jobs out there—but in their view, many do not call for a university education. “We’re pushing them [students] with this kind of job preparation mentality that is not factual,” says Côté. “Liberal arts education is not job training except for being a liberal arts professor. Very few of them are going to do that.”