HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: employment

April 13

Five Questions for Ken Coates

So, Ken Coates of the University of Saskatchewan published a paper the week before last arguing that there were too many university students and not enough trades students, so we should reduce university enrolments by a third and what the hell is wrong with kids today anyway?  Despite being not much more than a warmed-over version of the paper he co-authored with Rick Miner in IRPP a couple of years ago, it got some attention because it played directly into both the elitist view of universities (all these students devalue the degree!) and the weird view some in Canada have that the only problem with the labour market is that workers are too stupid to see the opportunities in front of them.

The paper is a hot mess of unfounded assertions and questionable logic which raises at least 5 questions (I’d guess readers can come up with a few more of their own) which I think the author needs to answer before the paper can be taken seriously.

1.Why does Coates keep saying today’s young people feel too “entitled”? What does he mean by this disparaging term?  What evidence is there to suggest this generation display a greater sense of entitlement than any previous generation?  Or is this just an arrogant way of saying youth don’t do what Coates thinks they should do?  (Also: does Coates spend a lot of time yelling at kids to get off his lawn?)

2. Why does Coates repeatedly denigrate the idea that “the labour market should be directed by the uninformed educational choices of 17-19 year-olds”?  Has it not ever been thus?  Was there some golden age in Canadian history when the state or business made career decisions on young peoples’ behalf and where economic outcomes were demonstrably better?  Can Coates name a democratic nation where 17-19 year-olds don’t make their own educational choices?  

3. Why, if as Coates claims, no one can know the future of the labour market, is he so damn sure we need more college/trades graduates?  Coates: “it is extremely difficult to anticipate downstream market demand for employees”.  Coates: “Governments have a poor track record when it comes to picking winners in the economy”.  Well, if that’s true, isn’t this entire paper – which based on the idea that we know that more college/trades education and less university education is a good idea – an enormous waste of time?  (Or, more simply, “wrong”?)

4. What evidence does Coates have for saying Canadians are defaulting “to the traditional view that a university degree is the best avenue to prosperity” and “turning their children’s dreams against blue-collar work”?  Here’s a quick summary of educational attainment for Canadian males, aged 30 or under, who did their post-secondary education in Canada:

 Figure 1: Highest Level of Educational Attainment, Males Aged 30 and Under, Canada, 2010

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Got that?  Among males under 30, there are almost as many apprentice and trades certificate holders as there are bachelor’s holders.  Throw the colleges in and it’s more than two to one.  Another way to look at the data is to compare the number of males with Bachelor’s degrees with those working in those “in-demand” area Coates is continually babbling about – construction trades, mechanics, precision production, transportation, and all Engineering sub-fields who have less than a bachelor’s degree.  Here are the numbers:


Figure 2: Bachelor’s Degree Holders vs. Workers in Five Key Trades, Males under 30, Canada, 2010

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 In short: Averse to blue-collar work?  Not even vaguely true.

 

5.   Why does Coates think blue-collar work is so hot anyway?  The problem with blue collar work – apart from the fact that it’s seriously gender-biased – is that it’s cyclical.  A lot of people in Canada – including Coates, apparently – forget that because the current commodities cycle has been going on so long, but when commodities prices fall blue collar outcomes are pretty terrible.  Back in the mid-90s, when oil was cheap, we only had about a quarter as many apprentices as we do now.  In the 1980s, unemployment rates for trades grads was over 15%.  How good do you think blue collar will look if oil is permanently back down to $50 and China’s growth rate heads down to 3%?

Coates does have a point in that universities need to do more to make their graduates employable, and he’s also right that more post-secondary learning needs to be experiential in nature.  But to go from there and say that we need fewer university graduates is just a baseless assertion.  He can and should do better.

February 04

The “Skills for Jobs Blueprint”

I don’t pay as much attention as I should on this blog to matters British Columbian, mostly because I don’t get out there often enough.  But the province’s “Skills for Jobs  Blueprint” cries out for some critical treatment, because frankly it’s not all that smart.

Turn back the clock a bit: in April 2014, the BC government rolled-out a series of policies that were collectively branded as the “Skills for Jobs Blueprint”.  Much of it consisted of relatively sensible changes to trades training in view of the upcoming Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) mega-project.  However, included in this package was some other stuff that sounded like it had been dreamt up on the back of a cocktail napkin.  These included: more generous student aid to students enrolled in disciplines related to “high-demand” occupations, and requiring institutions to spend at least 25% of their budgets on disciplines related to “high-demand” occupations (to be phased in by 2017-18).

The student aid pledge was just silly: if these are truly high-demand occupations, they’ll pay more, and students will have less problem re-paying loans.  Why would you give more money to these people? The requirement for institutional spending had the potential to be ridiculous, but wasn’t necessarily so.  Whatever purists might think, public authorities spend money on higher education mainly to improve the local economy; and besides, depending on how broadly “high-demand” occupations were described, they might already be spending 25%.  There was the possibility, in other words, that it would require no change at all on institutions’ part.  But that would depend crucially on how BC defined “high-demand”.

This is where it gets maddening.  When the government finally released its definition of high-demand, it had nothing to do with a skills gap, and was not in any way based on analyses of supply and demand.  Instead, it was simply the 60 occupations with the most job openings.  Or, put differently: according to the government of BC, the highest-demand occupations are simply the 60 largest occupations.  Oy.

Now, it’s hard to tell whether institutions actually line up 25% of their spending on priority disciplines related to the “big 60”, since BC doesn’t work on any kind of funding formula.  However, it is possible to reverse engineer this kind of thing by looking at enrolment patterns, and assuming that spending weights are similar to what one would see in other provinces (read: Ontario and Quebec), as we demonstrated back here.  Which is what my colleague Jackie Lambert did.

The results were instructive.  Quite clearly, all colleges meet the test.  Among universities, it’s slightly more complicated.  If you simply take all enrolments in the academic programs most directly related to 59 of the 60 “most desired” occupations, and weight them in the ON/QC style, you find that province-wide, these programs already make up 32% of expenditures, and all universities except Emily Carr would meet the 25% cut.  However, the 60th occupation with the most “demand” is university professors (yes, really), which technically can be filled by doctoral students from any program.  Throw those in and you end up with almost 47% of all dollars being spent on “priority” areas.

Ideally, this result would mean the province could just declare victory (“Look!  25%! We showed them!”) and go home.  But these days, government can’t just be seen to be ordering institutions about; they have to actually be ordering them about.  So my guess is BC will avoid declaring victory, and instead use the ambiguity created by the lack of a funding formula to jerk institutions around a bit “(Spend here!  Don’t spend there!”), just to show everyone who’s boss.

Plus ça change…

August 11

Improving Career Services Offices

Over the last few years, what with the recession and all, there has been increased pressure on post-secondary institutions to ensure that their graduates get jobs.  Though that’s substantially the result of things like curriculum and one’s own personal characteristics, landing a job also depends on being able to get interviews and to do well in them.  That’s where Career Services Offices (CSOs) come in.

Today, HESA released a paper that looks at CSOs and their activities.  The study explores two questions.  The first question deals specifically with university CSOs and what qualities and practices are associated with offices that receive high satisfaction ratings from their students.  The second question deals with college career services – here we did not have any outcome measures like the Globe and Mail, so we focussed on a relatively simple question: how does their structure and offerings differ from what we see in the university sector?

Let’s deal with that second question first: college CSOs tend to be smaller and less sophisticated than those at universities of the same size.  At first glance, that seems paradoxical – these are career-focussed organizations, aren’t they?  But the reason for this is fairly straightforward: to a large extent, the responsibility for making connections between students and employers resides at the level of the individual program rather than with some central, non-academic service provider – a lot of what takes place in a CSO at universities takes place in the classroom at colleges.

Now, to universities, and the question: what is it that makes for a good career services department?  To answer this question we interviewed CSO staff at high- medium- and low-performing institutions (as measured by the Globe and Mail’s pre-2012 student satisfaction surveys) to try to work out what practices distinguished the high-performers.  So what is it that makes for a really good career services office?  Turns out that the budget, staff size, and location of Career Services Offices aren’t really the issue.  What really matters are the following:

  • Use of Data.  Everybody collects data on their operations, but not everyone puts it to good use.  What distinguishes the very best CSOs is that they have an effective, regular feedback loop to make sure insights in the data are being used to modify the way services are delivered.
  • Teaching Job-seeking Skills.  Many CSOs view their mission as making as many links as possible between students and employers.  The very best-performing CSOs find ways to teach job search and interview skills to students, so that they can more effectively capitalize on any connections.
  • Better Outreach Within the Institution.  It’s easy to focus on making partnerships outside the institution.  The really successful CSOs also make partnerships inside the institution. One of the key relationships to be nurtured is academic staff.  Students, for better or for worse, view profs as frontline staff and ask them lots of questions about things like jobs and careers.  At many institutions, profs simply aren’t prepared for questions like that, and don’t know how to respond.  The best CSOs take the time to reach out to staff and partner with them to ensure they have tools at their disposal to answer those questions, and to direct students to the right resources at the CSOs.

If you want better career services, there’s your recipe.  Bonne chance.

September 03

What The Heck Did You THINK Was Going to Happen?

I’m a bit bewildered by some of the recent commentary about declining returns to education, most notably last week’s paper from CIBC on the subject.  While the actual report was not nearly as stupid as the ream of press coverage that followed it, it still had a few howlers, and definitely lacked critical thinking.

First, the howlers.  1) The returns to Bachelor’s degrees are not declining; they are, in fact, growing at a slightly slower rate than at other levels of education, which isn’t the same thing.  2) The gap between college and university graduates is closing, but it’s because college grads are doing better, not because university grads are doing worse.  3) Yes, the difference in unemployment rates between university and high school graduates is, as the report says, only about 1.5 percentage points (which is down considerably over the last decade or so).  But why emphasize that fact when the gap in employment rates – which are presumably much more important, and yet were unmentioned by the report – remains over 12 percentage points?  There’s too much cherry-picking of data here for my taste.

But look, here’s the bigger picture: it really shouldn’t be a surprise if graduate wages are stagnating, and there’s one very simple reason for this: there are way more graduates than there used to be.  Between the late ‘90s and the late ‘00s, the country went from having 600,000 undergraduates to having 900,000 undergraduates.  That’s an extra 75,000-90,000 graduates hitting the labour market every year.  That’s a heck of a supply shock.

The surprise, frankly, isn’t that university graduates’ wages aren’t climbing as quickly as those of college and high school graduates.  The surprise is that they’re rising at all.  This suggests that there is, in fact, enormous labour market demand for the skills provided by university students; if there weren’t wages would have decreased.

I pointed this out on Twitter the day the CIBC paper came out only to learn that for many people – including people who would describe themselves as fiercely progressive – even the hint that relative rates of return might be falling turned them into foaming conservatives with respect to university admissions.  Too many students!  We need a labour market policy!  Etc., etc.

I mean, what exactly did everyone think was going to happen when we allowed enrolment to rise by 50%?  That there would be no change in returns?  And even if there was a slight fall in returns – who cares?  In a democracy, isn’t it better to have 150 people earning good returns than 100 people earning brilliant ones?

Yeesh.

August 12

The Neo-Soviet View of Education and the Labour Market

Recently, I had a conversation with someone in the trucking industry who argued that the phenomenon of Arts grads working minimum wage jobs while trucking companies were having problems hiring people at $30/hour was prima facie evidence for a “skills mismatch” for which the education system was responsible.  Seriously.  Turns out that a lot of people – including a hell of a lot of people in government from all political stripes – seem to think that a “skills mismatch” is what happens any time some jobs in certain fields aren’t getting filled at current wages.  The idea that people might be making decisions based on personal preferences doesn’t seem to occur to them; and the concept that wages might need to rise in order to overcome these preferences (with all the time alone on the road, and hours not compensated due to loading delays, etc, $30/hr simply isn’t enough, but an extra $5/hour might do the trick) definitely doesn’t occur to them.  Rather, say these folks, it is the preferences themselves which must change – and government (and schools and universities) is responsible for changing them.

Take, for instance, this recent piece from BC tech entrepreneur Ryan Holmes.  It is legendarily incoherent, but I’m told it represents the views of much of the tech sector, so it’s worth a read.  We’re falling behind the US in tech, it says, because of a brain drain.  All our best are heading south (we’re not told why, but presumably pay is an issue, no?).  We could import people to staff our tech sector instead, but this, we are told, is just a temporary fix.  (Why this is so when Silicon Valley’s success is almost entirely down to immigration is not explained).  No, the real solution is to train more people for tech jobs, and the barrier to this is that we don’t spend enough time in high school explaining to them how great tech careers are, etc etc.

If tech careers are so great, why is it up to government to sell them to students?   (“selling” may be too polite a term – Holmes wants governments to “funnel” students into engineering programs, which suggests a more directive approach.)  Maybe the problem is that while tech is naturally attractive for some, for many others it seems brutal, unstable and intimidating.  That doesn’t mean they won’t consider it – but it does mean that at current compensation levels, fewer people than the tech industry considers optimal think it would be a good fit for them.

If this were a market economy, we’d just tell businesses to raise the damn wage levels and see what happens.  But this is Canada, and our business community apparently doesn’t believe in the price mechanism as far as labour is concerned.  Instead, we blame government and schools for not sufficiently manipulating the supply of labour to favour specific industries.

Oy.  Come back Gosplan, all is forgiven.

August 06

Correlation and Causation in Technical Education

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

“In many Northern and Central European countries, including Switzerland and Germany, there are robust apprenticeship programs. In both of those countries, youth unemployment is very low compared to Canada and the U.S.”

Or this:

“As the economy changes, however, it is increasingly clear that this is the polytechnic moment… in the recent recession, youth unemployment was lower in countries with strong vocational training programs.”

There are three propositions here.  One is that Canada’s apprenticeship/vocational training/polytechnics systems are weaker than those in what for the sake of brevity I will call Germanic Central Europe (GCE).  Another is that unemployment is lower in GCE than it is in Canada.  Finally, it is heavily implied that there is some sort of causal relationship at work here; that GCEs have lower unemployment rates because of their educational systems.

Let’s take those three in turn.    It is certainly true that GCE countries have more apprentices than we do. But the term “apprenticeship” means something different over there.  As I pointed out back here, the reason places like Germany have more apprentices is because their set of apprenticeable trades is much wider than ours.  If you limit the analysis to just skilled trades, Canada’s apprentice numbers actually look about the same as Germany’s (our completion rates are much lower – but that’s a less sexy story).

As for “vocational education” and “polytechnics” (terms that are not synonyms): Canada already has the largest non-university tertiary system on the planet.   True, we don’t have a lot of “polytechnics”, but the recent trend in GCE has been to turn these institutions into degree-granting “Universities of Applied Science” with professional rather than vocational orientations.  So yes, GCEs’ technical education systems are different from ours.  But their sources of strength aren’t necessarily in “vocational” training the way we define it.

With respect to unemployment rates, it’s quite true that unemployment among 15-24 year-olds in places like Germany (8.1%), Austria (8.7%) and Switzerland (2.8%) are lower than in Canada (13.6%).  But youth unemployment can’t be examined in isolation: it is a function of overall economic conditionsThe ratios of youth unemployment to overall unemployment tell a different story: Canada’s rate is 1.92, Austria’s 1.85, Germany’s 1.53 and Switzerland’s a freakish 1.04.  Austria’s purported advantage, at least, disappears completely on this more sensible comparison

Finally, the issue of causation.  Dial things back about twelve years; Germany had the same “dual” system of apprenticeships, but unemployment rates were twice what they are now.  If apprenticeships “cause” low unemployment now, did they also “cause” high unemployment twelve years ago?  Obviously not.  Claiming causation in one period but not another looks like cherry-picking.

In short, it’s good to invest in top-notch technical education, but be wary of over-ambitious claims made about its impacts.

July 05

Today’s Statscan Youth Jobs Report

Hi there.  Just a slight deviation from the summer publication schedule to bring you some perspective on the youth employment numbers coming out of StatsCan today.

Unless something has gone seriously gaga in the youth labour market in the past few weeks, today’s Labour Force Survey release will say that slightly over 70% of students aged 20-24 are employed and that unemployment among these students is in the 7-9% range. That sounds pretty good; the problem is that StatsCan’s definition of unemployment doesn’t even vaguely correspond to how students see the issue.

The basic problem is that StatsCan defines someone as being “out of the labour force” if they are in full-time studies; as a result, students taking summer courses are excluded from the calculation.  But in fact, as our own 2012 survey of summer employment showed, over 70% of summer students are also either working or looking for a job; among this group, unemployment typically runs at between 20 and 30% (last year, the figure was 29%; this year, it is 23%).  Indeed, one reason many students take summer courses in the first place is precisely because their jobs search was unsuccessful!  

Although our full annual employment report won’t be out for a bit, I want to provide you with some statistics on one other labour issue currently generating a lot of attention: unpaid internships.  Our preliminary examination of the data suggests that 5.4% of students are in some kind of internship or practicum this summer.  Of these, roughly half are educationally-related (e.g. mandated practicums in teaching or social work), meaning that about 2.7% of all students (or about 27,000 across the country) are in unpaid internships this summer.  That’s a long way below the 100-300K estimates one sees in the press these days, but it’s not inconsistent with those numbers since a) those larger figures represent internship positions across an entire year rather than positions at any one time, and b) our survey looks only at current university students and does not include either college students or recent graduates. 

Lastly, a key point about these unpaid internships: they’re mostly part-time affairs.  The median unpaid internship is just a 14 hours per week commitment; as a result, fully half of the students with unpaid internships are able to gain an income by working either full- or part-time. 

Have a good weekend, and be wary of overly rosy LFS statistics.

June 04

Some Insights Into Medium-term Education Outcomes

As I noted yesterday, Canada is unnecessarily bad at looking at medium-term outcomes of education. The only place where we have data on university graduates even five years out is in BC, and they publish the data in such a weird format (seriously: check it out) that no one really explores them.

It could be worse. In 2005, Statscan, did a 5-year follow-up of the class of 2000 and elected not to publish any results relating to employment or income. *Facepalm*, as the kids say.

However, because I have nothing better to do, I have put together three interesting figures on how graduates fare between years 2 and 5, in select disciplines (chosen because of sample size). It’s all courtesy of that same BC data on the graduating class of 2004. I won’t bore you with employment both at 2 and 5 years, it’s uniformly quite low. Let’s start instead by looking at incomes five years out. It turns out that while some disciplines do have precarious earnings in the first two years after graduation, median incomes rise across all fields by 35% between years 2 and 5 (that’s more than 10% per year, if you’re counting). Just for comparison, the median earnings among all Canadian workers in 2009 was $46,500. So, even in the “soft” disciplines, the ones that allegedly leave people without valuable skills like English and History, graduates five years out show median incomes above the national average.

Figure 1 – Median incomes, 2 and 5 years out, BC class of 2004, selected disciplines

Ah, you say: but are they using their skills? Aren’t they, perhaps, underemployed? Well, not really. Figure 2 shows the percentage who are in jobs which have been classified by the National Occupation Classification system as either being managerial or requiring university education. In the three disciplines where that percentage is lowest after 2 years (Biology, English, and Business) the rates of employment in high-skilled jobs jumps by 50-65% in the following three years. Five years out, the difference between history grads and computer science grads is only five percentage points.

Figure 2 – Percentage of graduates in jobs classified as “Management” or “Skill Level A” by NOC, 2 and 5 years out, BC class of 2004, selected disciplines

What’s perhaps most interesting is how graduates feel about how their education changes over time (figure 3). Across the board, graduates five years out feel less satisfied with their education and are less likely to say they’d do the same program again that they did at two. But while there’s a generalized malaise among students, the regret factor is clearly a lot higher in arts and science programs than it is in professional ones.

Figure 3 – Percentage-point change in graduates indicating satisfaction with program and indicating they would take same program again, 2 and 5 years out, BC class of 2004, selected disciplines


Anyways, that’s just what one bored dude can do with available data on a crappy 12-hour flight. Imagine if governments actually wanted to improve data and analysis in this area! Possibilities: limitless.

June 03

A Better Way to Track Graduates

The real problem Canada has with respect to the whole “does-education-pay” debate is data. It’s not that we don’t have people collecting data – we do, lots of them. The problem is that they’re all collecting data over time frames so short as to be largely meaningless.

The gold standard used to be the National Graduate Survey, which surveyed every fifth graduating class two and five years out. Now the 2-year survey is a year behind schedule and the 5-year follow-up has been discontinued. That’s right, folks – at the start of the recession, when Statscan took a look at their suite of surveys and decided which ones to can and which ones to keep, they decided that the one on medium-term educational outcomes was among the least policy-relevant and canned it. You know, so they could keep funding their monthly poultry storage reports .

For about a decade now, a number of provinces (all except MB, SK and NL) have started collecting data too; indeed, they have been doing so on a biannual basis, which is much better than Statscan could ever manage. However, most only track them out to 24 months, so the issue of long-term outcomes is still unaddressed. BC is the only province which does 5-year reports, and they’re quite interesting (more about them tomorrow).

The long-term outcomes of degrees and programs clearly matter a great deal. So why can’t we measure them? Cost, mainly. Anything further out that about 24 months is expensive to do well (BC’s 5-year response rates are disappointing, for instance), and so – penny-wise pound-foolish nation that we are – we don’t do it.

But there actually is a very cost-effective way to do this; namely, to link student records to tax records. Virginia, Tennessee and Arkansas have already linked their grads’ data to unemployment records and others seem poised to follow. In Canada, we could quite easily do the same thing by having Statistics Canada link its Post-Secondary Student Information System (PSIS) to the T1 family file. Instantly, with no new data collection expenses, you’d have income data by institution, program of study – what have you – as many years out as you like. As always with Big Data, there are some privacy concerns, but frankly none of them are very convincing, certainly not compared with the major public policy gains available.

Linking administrative databases is cheaper, faster and more accurate than what we do now. Why we haven’t moved to this system already is one of the biggest mysteries in Canadian higher education policy.

May 21

Post-Graduation Employment

The meme on “underperforming universities” these days revolves around the idea that specific fields of study – usually Bachelor’s degrees in the humanities – do not lead to good jobs.  But this depends in no small measure on what one means by a “good job”, and over what time frame one chooses to measure success.

The graph below shows data from Ontario, six months after graduation.  Between 2003-2007, the employment rate of graduates in the labour market (i.e. excluding those who chose to study) bounced around between 92 and 94%.  In 2009, the rate fell by about 7%, to roughly 86%, more or less equally across all disciplines. Some fields of study were consistently below the average – specifically, fine arts, physical sciences (which seems to include biological sciences), and engineering.  Some fields of study were well above the average, notably education and nursing.  Humanities and social sciences ended up half way between the two.

Employment Rates of Ontario Graduates Six Months After Graduation in Selected Fields of Study, 2003-2009

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The science figure is especially interesting, isn’t it?  Makes you wonder why there’s an S in STEM.

Now, some of you will surely be scratching your heads at this point.  Aren’t STEM graduates supposed to be in high demand?  How are both getting beat by Arts grads? Three quick answers. The first is that these figures exclude people who have gone back to school (unhelpfully, the Ontario data doesn’t tell you how big a number this is).  Two is that Engineers may take longer for a job search because they are secure in the knowledge that their eventual job will pay pretty well (see below) – the pattern we see after six months is also the pattern after twenty-four, as the chart below describes. And three is that the picture does change a bit after two years.

Employment Rates of Ontario Graduates Two Years After Graduation in Selected Fields of Study, 2003-2009

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The classes of 2003 and 2005 had 2-year employment rates of about 96.5%.  That fell to about 95% for the class of 2007, and 93% for the class of 2009.  The fall was concentrated in education, humanities, social science, fine arts, and physical sciences; other disciplines saw less change.

Finally, there is the issue of income.  Here you see the real knock on studying in the humanities;  it’s not that they don’t get jobs – it’s that they end up in some jobs that don’t pay well.  Now, their incomes do increase about twice as fast as others between six months and two years (in the midst of a recession, they jump, on average, by 21%), but they start from a lower base.  An interesting point here, which I have made before, is that the difference in outcomes between students in the sciences and the social sciences is negligible.

Income of Ontario University Graduates Six Months and Two Years Out, Selected Fields of Study, Class of 2009

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clearly, jobs aren’t the issue – students of all stripes find work soon enough.  The issue is the rate of return.  We should focus on that.

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