The myth of the unemployed university graduate

New statistics counter the popular narrative

Rhetoric class at the University of Winnipeg (Jessica Darmanin)

The unemployed university graduate is everywhere these days, from CBC’s Generation Jobless documentary to the cover of Maclean’s.

Since the recession, so the story goes, almost all 27-year-old university graduates are sitting in mom’s or dad’s basement playing Guitar Hero, firing off job applications and ranting on Facebook about how they’d be better off as plumbers.

This has become such accepted wisdom that when Allan Rock, president of the University of Ottawa, argued in a speech last week that it is, in fact, a myth, the Ottawa Citizen saw it as news.

Newly-released Statistics Canada charts of unemployment rates by education among 25 to 29-year-olds back up Rock’s point. Last year, university graduates were more likely than anyone else in that age group to be employed and just as likely to be working as the same age group was back in 2005 when no one fretted about jobs.

Of course, the doom and gloom didn’t just magically appear. The job market did get noticeably worse for university grads after the market crash of 2008. Their unemployment rate went from 4.7 per cent in 2008 to 6.6 per cent in 2010. College graduates and tradespeople fared slightly better over that period, but still felt their unemployment rate rise from 5.0 per cent to 6.4 per cent.

Since the recovery, as the new figures show, university graduates did better. Their unemployment rate fell back down to 5.8 per cent in 2012, just 0.1 per cent off from where it was in 2005.

Meanwhile, college graduates and tradespeople saw their rate fall just slightly to 6.2 per cent in 2012, making it—contrary to popular myth—higher than that of university grads post-recession.

That said, there’s not much difference between 5.8 per cent and 6.2. The scarier gaps are between those with post-secondary credentials of some kind and those with none. In 2012, high school graduates had 8.8 per cent unemployment and those without high school were at 16.4 per cent.

Another common refrain is that the class of 2009 was scarred for life by the recession, but it looks like most of them landed on their feet post-recovery. A very large survey of 2009 graduates in Ontario found that 93.1 per cent were employed by 2011. That’s not exactly a jobless generation.

Wages, however, are one area where university graduates have lost ground in recent years. That same Ontario survey found that 2009 university graduates earned $49,151 two years after graduation, while their peers from three years earlier made $49,468 two years after graduation.

This stagnation in the quality of jobs may explain some of the frustration. Some university graduates are likely settling for lower-rung jobs that they would have avoided in the past.

Either way, one thing is clear. Rock is right that most university graduates are working.

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