Traister: StatsCan muddies issue of 'overqualified' university grads

By Bryce Traister
April 17, 2014

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HUMANITIES_coverIllustration by Frank Neufeld

A recent Statistics Canada study reports that 30 per cent of 2011 university graduates with humanities degrees are ‘over-qualified,’ ie., they use their English degrees to make coffee confections.

Further, as The Globe and Mail reported last week: A Statistics Canada study, released Wednesday, found that even as the percentage of university graduates has risen over the past two decades, the proportion that is overqualified has remained stable.

Predictably, pundits are calling for university students to stop studying the ‘wrong things,’ and only study the ‘right things.’

The right things are, more or less, what used to be called ‘professional degrees,’ which meant they prepared students to successfully acquire a specific credential required to practice the career – accounting, teaching, nursing, engineering, architecture. Unsurprisingly, the same study, which found only a 70 per cent ‘fit’ between degree and occupation for humanities graduates, found closer to an 85 per cent fit with those specific degree/career occupations.

The less remarked upon revelation of the Statistics Canada study, Overqualification among recent university graduates in Canada, is the fact these percentages haven’t changed in 20 years, even though the actual number of university degree holders has increased by something like 40 per cent. So, if only 700 of 1,000 humanities graduates had employment in their degree area in 1991, then some 890 humanities grads had what Statistics Canada and others deem appropriate employment in 2011.

If one accepts the employment economy today is worse in some ways than it was 20 years ago, then it seems an equally reasonable inference to draw from the study is that more Humanities graduates than ever before have gainful employment three years out from graduation – and in a worse economy than their predecessors faced, to hear the pundits telling it.

But, of course, nobody is drawing this inference.

Bashing the humanities, and the people who study them, is much easier to do in a soundbite.

Nobody has seriously called the entire methodology of the study into question either, which one could quite easily do. For example, one of the degrees enjoying 85 per cent ‘qualified’ employment – teaching – is a professional degree that requires a big helping, usually two helpings, of a liberal arts education. So, teachers are part of the success story Statistics Canada wants to tell, and for every last one of them, liberal arts (including humanities) study is a requirement for the credential in the first place.

Arguing with studies like this only gets one so far.

The bigger problem is in the back of this study’s concoction and reception. It is a belief the value of a university degree resides entirely – and only – in a graduate’s initial salary for the job they start the day after they walk across the stage and collect their diploma. In spite of study after study, and one employer and employee survey after another demonstrating the desirability of communication and critical-thinking skills as among the most desirable traits a starting employee can bring to the table, politicians and their pundits trot out the line that universities and students need to focus on ‘job-ready skills’ to the exclusion of all else.

Given how expensive a university education has become, one can understand the anxiety of parents and students about getting ‘value’ from an education. One could, almost, forgive the politicians for demanding universities get in line with the Job-Skills U. crowd – but then, they’re the ones directly responsible for shifting the responsibility of paying for university education from the government to individuals.

To these people, and to those students who want to study something that actually interests them, and for which they have some natural talent, rather than something that will ‘get them a job,’ I have one word for you: relax.

First, tell your parents (and their favorite media pundits) to relax and get over their incessant need to plan your lives, make all of your choices for you and demand you assume their worries as yours.

Second, study what you love.

Third, succeed in that undertaking.

The relation of No. 2 to No. 3 cannot be overstated, for their successful prosecution will produce that confident, independent, problem-solving, self-starting person most employers like to hire, in spite of (or maybe because of) their holding an Art History degree.

How you study, and the person who comes out of that, is far, far more important than what you study.

Study what you love; succeed in what you study; all of the rest will follow.

It may take a while, and you may make some lattes on the way, but that isn’t the fault of your degree choice. It just means you haven’t gotten there yet.

Bryce Traister is an associate professor and the chair of the Department of English and Writing Studies at Western University.


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