The relationship between university education (or post-secondary education more broadly) and graduate employment is always a hot topic in the sector. Employment outcomes are in fact used as a proxy for determining how well universities are working-- see Ontario’s key performance indicators. Students too are incredibly invested in their employment prospects: employment related motivations remain at the top of lists of why students attend university (according to the Canadian University Survey Consortium (CUSC), the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, and other surveyors of students). Going into our 43rd General Assembly, more than half of our delegates said they were most interested in this year’s Student Employment policy paper.
This did not come as a surprise to us. Our Steering Committee has kept aspects of youth employment within our key priorities for the last two years, landing OUSA some interesting advocacy opportunities. We’ve been invited to speak on conference panels by institutional stakeholders, namely from Ryerson University and Magnet, as well as with industry roundtables hosted by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce. Last November, OUSA Steering Committee members and their student association presidents met with over 50 MPPs during our Annual Advocacy Week to discuss our priorities for removing barriers to accessing work-integrated learning opportunities and protecting vulnerable young workers.
More recently--and perhaps most interestingly--our Executive Director, Zachary Rose, and President, Spencer Nestico-Semianiw, were invited to sit on the Premier’s Highly Skilled Workforce Expert Panel. Here they advise the government on OUSA’s priorities for getting students better labour market information, more robust training opportunities, and improving students’ perceptions of their post-graduation employment prospects.
Despite this attention, current progress towards improving post-graduate employment outcomes still appears slow.
In the most recent CUSC survey of middle-year students, only 34% reported having a specific career in mind and 21% said they knew their career options very well. Their preparation for employment was mostly casual; three quarters said they had talked with parents, family, or friends about their employment or career. Few reported using employment services (15%) or career counselling (13%) at their universities, yet those who reported using these special services were generally satisfied with what was provided. Most dishearteningly of all, just over a third of Canadian middle-year students thought their universities greatly contributed to their skills and knowledge for employment, even less so to their knowledge of career options or entrepreneurial skills.
Results seem better for older students. In the CUSC’s survey of graduating students, respondents reported taking more serious steps towards their post-graduate employment preparation. Eighty percent talked with friends or parents, 76% had a resume, and 45% had job experience in their field of study. Still, few reported attending employment fairs, creating online portfolios, or using employment services and career counselling. Even with increased engagement, only 31% of graduating students had arranged jobs for after they graduated--57% were still looking for work.
Continuing our advocacy in this area, our new Student Employment policy paper signals a desire for more proactive and integrated approaches to improving undergraduates’ employability. There is a wide variety of resources available to students to explore their career options, unfortunately these resources are disconnected and out of sync with each other. Our policy paper calls for more collaboration between universities, the private sector, and government in the hopes of streamlining existing programs and initiatives, while identifying opportunities to develop new ones.
Our hope is that greater collaboration will eliminate misunderstandings between government, universities, and employers regarding the needs and trends of the labour market, as well as miscommunications between students, graduates, and employers regarding supposed skills gaps and mismatches.
Only free flowing and honest communication can encourage all contributors to take greater responsibility for their role in the “student employment puzzle.” We offer this policy paper as an outline of students’ priorities and vision for change. You can find more about the policy here.