With Canada’s unemployment rate at an estimated 7.6 per cent and the youth unemployment rate almost double that at approximately 14 per cent, it is becoming evident that one of the greatest tolls of the global economic downturn in this country is not necessarily job loss, but a lack of entry-level positions. Statistics suggest that higher education is key to improving the standard of living. University degrees are often not useful in predicting a person’s career prospects, particularly in regard to the types of employment a graduate may be best suited to undertake.
In many instances, individuals will not directly use their degrees in their future professions. There are varying reasons for this, including the fact that individuals may change their minds or circumstances, or select a field of study that does not have a corresponding profession. However, to a large extent, the reason is the same as the cause of high youth unemployment: most degrees do not offer practical experience in a particular field of employment.
There’s a saying about employment: you can’t get hired without job experience, but you can’t get job experience without being hired. This is the bind in which many university students are caught under our current system.
So, how can it be remedied? How can students be free to pursue their desired degrees while at the same time gaining a leg up in the job market? Well, we don’t need to look far to see how it is done. Canada’s own University of Waterloo offers the country’s largest co-operative education program. Waterloo’s co-op system offers a combination of study and work semesters in which each student has access to an administrator who helps students find placements during work terms. This has the added bonus of providing students with paid employment during the school year, which means that, in many instances, students in the co-op program can graduate with a lower level of student debt than their non-co-op counterparts.
But it is not just Waterloo that uses a co-op system. U of T’s Scarborough campus also has a program. And recently, the country of Singapore announced that it is adopting co-op programs in all of its public universities in order to address the concerns voiced by employers about graduates having insufficient work experience to do their jobs properly. This was putting a drag on the economy as businesses had to invest in costly training programs for new hires — making them less likely to hire recent grads.
The biggest concern regarding implementing a plan like this on a wide-scale basis, as Singapore has done, is that not every degree program has a corresponding list of potential jobs. However, co-op programs are voluntary and it should also be noted that every student has some idea of the types of jobs that might interest them — which leads to another advantage of the co-op program: instead of graduating and jumping into a career only to realize that it isn’t the right fit, students have four years in which to try out different career options.
Say you are studying political science in university and have a desire to work in journalism. You get a co-op job at a newspaper and suddenly you find it isn’t as much like All the President’s Men as you had initially thought. If you had already graduated you would be in some serious trouble. Instead, in a co-op program you get to return to a semester of school and think about all the different placements that might mesh with your major. You could work at a polling company, a political advisory firm, or find a job in a government department. You can try each of them out and, after your time at university, you have a better understanding of what career you want to pursue, while also having an impressive resume to help you get the job you want.
Students need jobs. If a generation is saddled with unemployment, it harms everyone, causing a lack of dignity, lower standards of living, strained public services, and employers who cannot find the necessary talent to fill positions. Instead, Ontario can respond to youth unemployment with a plan that will not only help young people, but will also ensure that the province leaves the recession in a stronger position than when it first entered it. The way forward is to adopt a co-op program to ensure that students have the option of practical work experience to complement their traditional degree program when attending university.