We have a highly educated workforce and, in spite of an economic downturn and instability in recent years, reasonably good job prospects in many areas.  Even so, we are often told that our economy faces a “skills gap;” no shortage of jobs, no shortage of personnel, but a lack of personnel who have the skills to do jobs that are in demand.

"We have an educational hierarchy in our society that places university above college, and college above trades and apprenticeships. This is a hierarchy that has less to do with merit, skills or economic outcomes and more to do with a preconceived notion of what is a 'better' education."

The current trends

In a way our society has come full circle from the days when many young people learned the family business or apprenticed with a local employer. In the past few decades, young people have increasingly been encouraged to attend formal post-secondary education, both because it increased their employability and because it was seen as a matter of prestige. Parents want their children to have more opportunities than they did, and attendance at university was and is a major cultural signifier that a graduate is “educated.” Young women in particular, once unfairly excluded from the university setting, have come to outnumber their male counterparts in many areas of study.

There is no question that higher rates of education among young people is a desirable socioeconomic outcome. Yet where has this trend ultimately got us?  We have large numbers of graduates with increasing year-on-year debt loads from skyrocketing tuition fees who end up unemployed, working in unskilled jobs, in positions that have nothing to do with their area of study, and/or having to go back to school to acquire more education.

It is not my intention here to disparage university education or the very real benefits that a university degree can bring. Rather, I strongly believe that we as a society need to change our views around what is considered a good education. We have an educational hierarchy in our society that places university above college, and college above trades and apprenticeships. This is a hierarchy that has less to do with merit, skills or economic outcomes and more to do with a preconceived notion of what is a “better” education. I would argue that this is a big part of the reason why a skills gap exists in Canada today.

"In a sense we have come full circle, in that vocational training is once again being identified as a valued educational choice.  Indeed, with the increasing specialization of many professions it is more important than ever."

Development and training

In recent months, a number of businesses and organizations, such as the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, have called on employers to take a more active role in the development of training programs within their own organizations or in partnership with post-secondary institutions. This an idea the federal government is also supporting through the Canada Job Grant. 

There are good reasons for these moves: for example, Gwyn Dyer in the Globe & Mail earlier this month cited a recent OECD finding that countries with the highest apprenticeship participation rates have the lowest youth unemployment. In Canada, only about two percent of our workforce goes through apprenticeship training, compared to countries like Germany, where youth unemployment is very low and almost half of secondary school grads choose apprenticeship as their post-secondary option.

Parents, students, recent graduates and older workers therefore need to weigh their options carefully when it comes to continuing education. In a sense we have come full circle, in that vocational training is once again being identified as a valued educational choice.  Indeed, with the increasing specialization of many professions it is more important than ever.  That is why, be it through a university co-op placement, skills training at a community or career college, or a trades apprenticeship, I urge readers to consider vocational training as a strong path to employment and financial stability after graduation.