Employers want students with college skills and university thinking: experts

TORONTO – A college education is becoming an increasingly attractive option for many prospective students who are seeking the right skills to fit an evolving job market.

“There’s a definite shift in attitude about college and more of an understanding, that as the economy changes, colleges are a really good opportunity to get skills that match the job market,” said Linda Franklin, president of Colleges Ontario.

Enrolment in first-year college programs in Ontario, for example, is up five per cent this year to more than 125,000 students. About 220,000 students are enrolled in programs overall, numbers that are made up not only of first-time students but also by university graduates seeking more marketable skills.

According to the latest data available from the Association of Canadian Community Colleges, there are currently 1.5 million students at colleges, institutes and polytechnics, one million of which are students earning credits in certificate, diploma, degree, apprenticeship programs.

But while interest in job-specific training tends to go up in hard economic times, this latest bump seems determined to outlast the recession, experts say.

“We’ve gotten past some of those ideas about who should go to college and who should go to university,” said Jessica McCormick, chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students.

Prospective students now see the value of a college education, she added, and “that it’s for everybody… (and) not just (for those who) don’t get into university.”

This year, the top program choices were business, practical nursing, social work, electrical engineering technician and culinary management, according to Colleges Ontario. Computer programmers, machine operators and welders are also among the most in-demand trades, although mechanics, carpenters, hair stylists and plumbers are also needed.

An uncertain economic picture, high tuition and fears about student debt levels are growing concerns among both youths and parents, she said, noting that university students are increasingly frustrated by the difficulty of finding a job in their chosen careers. According to the CFS, some students graduate with an average debt of $28,000.

Meanwhile, even the federal government has been promoting the skilled trades through specific programs and TV ads.

Employment Minister Jason Kenney last week wrapped up a fact-finding mission to Germany to study that country’s popular apprenticeship system, which streams its youth into skilled trades and features a long-standing partnership among government, schools and business.

Ottawa is looking for ways to expand paid co-op opportunities that combine classroom-based education with practical work experience, but also to “reinvent” vocational high schools.

Benjamin Tal, an economist with CIBC, suggests that’s a step in the right direction, noting that it’s both “backwards and expensive” to have university graduates later end up in colleges for practical training.

“I think the key to solve the mismatch in the labour market in Canada is to get rid of the stigma that’s associated with colleges,” he said.

And while a university degree comes with its own benefits, Tal said, the two systems should work together more closely to allow people to follow their passion and find a reasonable way to make a living.

“I don’t see anything wrong with a degree in history and a minor in plumbing,” said Tal.

Many university students opt for fields with clear outcomes, such as business, engineering and health sciences, according to Paul Davidson, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.

Universities are now also offering more co-op and job placements as part of their programs, and extending them to more fields of study.

A student of English literature, for instance, can work as a corporate writer to get a better sense of the job opportunities that a degree can offer.

But Davidson cautions against taking too much of a short-term approach.

“The value of a university degree is enduring. It will see you through good times and bad,” he said.

The association says enrolment in full-time university programs was up to 966,400 students in 2013, up 15,000 from the year before. In Ontario, enrolment has climbed to 433,400 from to 423,700 in 2012.

Andrea Plotnick of the Hay Group, a global management consulting firm based in Toronto, says she’s struggling to understand why university degrees seem to have lost some of their lustre.

Whatever the reason, she argues it’s important to for a student to develop their critical thinking skills so they can become leaders in their field.

“We really have become a fast-track society in so many ways,” she said. “It’s all about how do we circumvent everything just to get rich quick.”

That may work if you’re a contestant on American Idol, or if you’re one of the few who made it big with no formal education or training, she said, but it’s no way to look at workforce planning.

“We shouldn’t be taking a cookie-cutter approach to thinking about our labour force,” said Plotnick.

“We need higher-order thinking. We need people that are more technically inclined — we need it all.”

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