Alan Sellathamby graduated from the University of Toronto four years ago. Armed with a degree in political science and philosophy, he scoured job boards in the hopes of landing an entry-level civil service job—maybe a junior policy analyst or even a position in a passport office. But in the aftermath of the Great Recession, his prospects were bleak. “Any of the positions I would look for wanted someone with experience in the field,” he says. “Even if it was an entry-level position, they would want two or three years’ experience.”
Fast forward to 2014 and little has changed. The economy is better, but Sellathamby still works in the same bookstore he did while attending university. And he’s one of the lucky ones. The youth unemployment rate remains stuck at 13.4 per cent, about double the overall unemployment rate.
Sellathamby wasn’t so naive as to think his bachelor’s degree would guarantee him a high-paying, career-oriented position straight out of school. But with all the panicky talk about a looming skills shortage as Baby Boomers retire, he didn’t think he would be ignored, either. More frustrating, the “skills” separating him from that all-important first position seem like the sort of thing that could be picked up with a few weeks of on-the-job training.
Indeed, there’s little evidence employers are willing to train new recruits—or anyone, for that matter. Despite complaints about a shortage of skilled workers, studies show corporate spending on training has been in steady decline for the past two decades. Canada is also near the bottom of the pack when it comes to adult participation in non-formal job-related training (resulting in no degree, diploma or certificate), well behind several European countries and the United States. Experts say the curious phenomenon contributes to Canada’s abysmally low productivity rates, since well-trained workers tend to do their jobs more efficiently.
Experts say that Canada, for all its hand-wringing about the economy, does a woeful job of tracking the all-important labour market. We know very little about who is hiring, what skills they are looking for and how graduates of specific programs fare in the real world. Don Drummond, a former chief economist at one of Canada’s big banks and now adjunct professor at Queen’s University, argues that the real crisis may be one of ignorance.
Depending on whom you talk to, Canada’s labour market is either going through an extended rough patch or is fundamentally broken. The overall unemployment rate remains elevated at seven per cent, even as companies in a range of industries, from information technology to natural resources, complain they can’t find enough qualified workers to fill advertised positions. The situation has been dubbed a “skills gap” or “skill mismatch” and has led to questions about whether Canada’s education system has become too university-focused, pumping out thousands of grads with liberal arts degrees when employers are actually looking for technicians and tradespeople.
Ottawa’s controversial Temporary Foreign Worker Program made it possible for some unscrupulous employers to bypass available Canadian workers in favor of cheaper foreigners. A report earlier this year by the C.D. Howe Institute said the program, since overhauled, ballooned to 338,000 participants in 2012 from 101,000 10 years earlier and actually helped to accelerate unemployment in the Western provinces.
Figuring out where the jobs are isn’t easy either. At present, job vacancy data is aggregated at the provincial level through an employment, payroll and hours survey of 15,000 employers. But it’s not sufficient to understand what’s going on in many industries, let alone individual occupations. Wage information is lacking, too. It’s gleaned from Statistics Canada’s labour force survey, which contacts 56,000 households across the country.
Critics have groused about Ottawa’s willingness to launch sweeping labour policies based on a superficial understanding of the market. In addition to slashing the budget of Statistics Canada, the federal government has also come under fire for relying on unconventional software tools to scan online job boards like Kijiji, where the same positions may be posted more than once. In response, Employment Minister Jason Kenney has promised to spend $14 million annually on new, more robust job market surveys.
Meanwhile, policy-makers and students will be forced to rely on a hodgepodge of third-party job surveys, anecdotal information and gut instinct to figure out how employment in this country works. That, in turn, boosts the likelihood that jobless grads will continue to spend thousands on unnecessary or ill-suited programs as they scramble for a toehold on the career ladder. Sana Khan, a career counsellor, says she’s frequently amazed at the long list of degrees and diplomas that some people have collected with nothing to show for it. “I’m looking at resumés and there are four programs,” she says. “They went to university and then one college and another college. It scares me. I’m like, what are they doing?” She adds that a bigger employer commitment to training, co-op programs and paid internships would go a long way toward alleviating the problem. “There’s a huge disconnect between employers and students.”
Sellathamby, for one, is eying more school, this time a public policy program at Concordia because it includes an internship placement. But he can’t help but feel it’s just a costly way to get his foot in the door—assuming, of course, he picks the right door in the first place. There’s got to be an easier way, he reasons.