Newly minted graduates need help on the job market

With Ontario Premier Doug Ford set to repeal Bill 148, precarious and vulnerable workers are back in the news. The existing Bill set forth a number of protections for part-time, contract and other “non-traditional” workers, including equal wages with existing employees, paid sick days, and raises to the minimum wage. Precarious employment, however, is not limited to low-income earners. A recent study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), reveals that 1 in 5 professionals in Canada have precarious jobs. Of the 1,000 survey respondents, 53% held advanced bachelor’s degrees, and 23% had a graduate degree. Yet out of those with a bachelor’s degree, 53% reported working only part-time, on contract, or freelance. The same was true for 31% of respondents with graduate degrees. As Ricardo Tranjan, co-author of the study, noted, “We are talking about people here who quote-unquote 'did everything right,'...They went to university, they passed professional exams, they were told they would have a job waiting for them. And it's not necessarily there.”

Indeed it’s not. A new study of Millennial employment in the Hamilton area titled The Generation Effect shows just how difficult employment conditions can be for new graduates. In this report, co-authors Jeffrey C. Martin and Wayne Lewchuk shatter any remaining notions that a degree automatically confers a “good job.” Analysis of a survey of 1,189 Millennials working in the Hamilton area revealed that only 44% had secured full-time permanent employment.

Contrasting with these figures is the seemingly much brighter outlook conveyed by the Council of Ontario Universities’ latest employment average of 93.9% for 2014 graduates two years after convocation. Many universities publish similar figures (or better) for their own graduates. These numbers can be misleading, however, as they do not distinguish secure from precarious positions, or indicate whether the jobs graduates are getting require the level of education they’ve attained. What we do know from research, though, is that recent graduates face mounting debts, uncertain prospects, and confusion over where to turn for help.

Confronted with an increasingly difficult job market, new graduates may feel isolated when they leave the academic environment for the first time in their lives. They also have to deal with expectations of family, friends, community, and their own vision of what happens next. In this situation, it is only natural that new grads turn to their institutions for help; yet there is no guarantee that they’ll receive it. Career and employment support for alumni varies widely. Some institutions, like the University of Waterloo, offer a number of free consultations with an alumni advisor before moving to a fee-for-service delivery model complemented by online courses and resources. Other universities, like Queen’s, Western, and University of Toronto, provide comprehensive service for one or two years after graduation, respectively. This level of service is helpful for many, but might not work well for students who secure a contract position after graduation or pursue additional education at another institution. By the time these young alumni need assistance, they will no longer have access to their alma maters’ support.

It is my view that all institutions should offer alumni career and employment assistance in some manner. To maintain lifelong relationships, universities need to maintain support and welcome back alumni who turn to them in need of assistance. They also need to ensure that career supports are broadly publicized in person and online, and are easily accessible. For universities following a decentralized model of service delivery, alumni and faculty webpages need to provide clear links that indicate where assistance is available and for how long, and not hide information behind logins that alumni may no longer remember.

In researching this article, I visited a number of universities’ websites, where I became caught in link circles referring to pages that referred to other pages, without ever finding the promised information. I came across sites that didn’t provide concrete instructions or contact information, and still more with vague hints of service, but no details or links. If I were an alumna seeking assistance, I would have given up in frustration.

As a former alumni career coach, I have observed the immense benefits of assisting former students with their career and employment challenges. Aside from their individual triumphs that promote the university by association, these alumni have willingly served as mentors, volunteers, community leaders, and employers. With universities facing a host of challenges, from integrating WIL across all programs to managing the increasing costs of higher education, strong ties with alumni are crucial to continued success. As Millennials overwhelmingly told Martin and Lewchuk, the employment game is getting harder. We can either stand behind our students and alumni and earn their lifelong loyalty, or we risk losing them and paying a much higher and uncertain cost to regain their support, if that’s even possible.

Catherine Maybrey is a career development practitioner with over 10 years' experience specializing in higher education, and the owner of CM Coaching Services.

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