Education and employment relationship changes

A recent study from the federal government is shedding new light on the decades-long assumption that more education automatically means better job prospects and pay. 


For decades, the relationship between a post-secondary degree and ultimate job prospects was very clear. Degree holders were consistently more likely to be employed and earn more than those who did not continue their studies past high school. Many of us grew up with the notion that unless we pursue a university or college education, our job prospects would be limited. A recent study by the federal Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship raises some serious questions about these previous assumptions. 

Some of the major findings of the study were that fully a third of Canadians who were in high skilled jobs were high school dropouts or finished school at Grade 12. As well, more than one-third of lower skilled jobs – 38 per cent – were held by postsecondary graduates. The study compared the fortunes of immigrants and Canadian-born citizens and found that about a third of Canadian-born individuals with post-secondary education held a lower-skilled job, and the comparable number for immigrants was higher at 41 per cent. 

This is understandable as immigrants would be more likely to have language issues, credentials that were not fully recognized in Canada or lack Canadian job experience. But overall, the relationship between higher educational attainment leading to a high skilled job was not as straightforward as previously believed. One of the reasons cited in the study for lesser educated workers having more highly skilled jobs was the value of on-the-job training or a period of apprenticeship.  

The study was conducted to determine what types of jobs immigrants are doing compared to native-born Canadians, with a view to potentially changing immigrant selection criteria in future.  While 40 per cent of immigrants were found in low skill jobs, the proportion was 50 per cent for refugees. Recent immigrants in Canada for less than five years had a higher likelihood of occupying low-skilled jobs, not surprisingly. 

Considering that the Trudeau government is bringing a record number of immigrants into Canada, including a record number of refugees, these are important data. Immigration targets for 2023 and 2024 are 447,055 and 451,000, respectively. Recent immigration policy has been very haphazard, with illegal immigration encouraged despite record-long waiting lists for processing and increasing pressure on government services such as health care, housing and education. It will be interesting to see if this study has any impact. 

The study was also informative from the perspective of the Canadian-born workers included, as their results in terms of job skill levels were not that much better than for immigrants. In recent years, many critics have pointed out the decline in our universities and colleges as bastions of free thinking and intelligent debate as the social justice warriors within these institutions have become more dominant, changed the curriculum and punished any stream of thought they disagree with. A degree in gender studies may be trendy in some circles, but is not likely to lead to highly-skilled employment. 

Some university professors have become alarmed at the trend, noting that students come out of the public secondary school system with poor literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills, to the extent that universities feel they must set up remedial classes to make up for the failures of the high schools to teach basic skills. They also comment on such issues as students feeling very entitled despite the skills gaps, and expect a passing grade just for showing up to class. The dumbing-down of our education system at all levels is likely one of the reasons for a larger disconnect between a university degree and a highly-skilled job. 

Technological change is also a reason for major labour market changes, as many skilled and highly-paid manufacturing jobs have disappeared because of automation or because the manufacturers moved to lower cost jurisdictions as Canada’s high tax, high-cost business environment makes businesses uncompetitive. 

This is not to say that higher education no longer has value, but rather that students should be very particular about the subjects they choose to study and ensure there is a market for those skill sets. Even though governments and businesses have been heavily promoting the trades in recent years as they pay very well and are in great demand, trades studies are still looked down on as many families and teachers encourage students to pursue a university degree instead. 

As the retirement of the baby boomers over the next number of years creates labour shortages, it will be even more important to ensure Canada’s pool of workers fits well with job vacancies. Bringing massive numbers of immigrants into the country without a sensible plan as to how they will fit into the workforce does no favours for anyone, including the immigrants themselves. 

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