The sign-in page of a major Canadian bank's online banking site flashes a simple message: "See how $25 a week can grow into a $50,911 university fund."

Notice what it does not say. It was not encouraging saving for a college diploma, a polytech degree, an apprenticeship program or, heavens forbid, money to start a business.

No, in Canada, sending your children toward a university degree is the gold standard against which all forms of parental support and commitment are judged.

Red River College

Live from Red River College

Information Radio, Radio Noon and Up to Speed are broadcasting live from Red River College campuses across Winnipeg on Thursday, Sept. 4. Tune in throughout the day on CBC Radio One 89.3 FM / 990 AM.

A university education has a great deal to offer. Students who combine the right degrees with work experience and an impressive work ethic can do extremely well in today's job market.

Those who select a non-career-oriented degree, have little work experience, or are not really given to hard and high quality work can find themselves in the growing ranks of underemployed or unemployed university graduates. And those without the right ability or motivation can easily join the 30 per cent or more of university students who fail to complete their studies.

For some Canadian high school graduates, going to university is an impressive and valuable option. For others, it is an expensive and time-consuming exercise in self-discovery and, often, failure.

Despite these realities, parents, guidance counsellors and politicians continue to over-promote universities, leaving the impression across the country that universities offer the only realistic and reliable paths to middle-class job security and a productive and rewarding career. This is a serious misunderstanding, one that is not connected to the realities of the Canadian job market and the nature of work in the 21st century.

Sign of a mismatch

Canadian university graduates move into a college or polytech program shortly after graduating is but one sign of the mismatch between a university education and the contemporary job market.

Canadians have alternatives. This country has one of the highest quality and most comprehensive post-secondary systems in the world. Just as our universities rank well internationally, other institutions perform at a high level.

Ken Coates

Ken Coates writes that for some Canadian high school graduates, going to university is an impressive and valuable option. For others, it is an expensive and time-consuming exercise in self-discovery and, often, failure, he added. (Ken Coates)

This country's polytechs, like Red River College in Manitoba, Sheridan, Seneca and Humber College (Ontario), NAIT and SAIT (Alberta) and BCIT (British Columbia), are world leaders in the development of practical, applied and career-ready diplomas and degrees.

Canadian colleges are, likewise, extremely good at responding to the needs and opportunities facing people looking to make the transition into the workforce. In Manitoba, Assiniboine College, the University College of the North and École Technique et Professionnelle do an excellent job of career preparation and training.

It is vital that Canadians consider all of the options available to them. For some young adults and mature learners, universities are the ideal option. For others, they can be an expensive waste of time, money and effort. There are many people who would be much better off going directly to a college or polytech, where they could be in a program that leads them to the kind of career that they desire.

Realistic assessment needed

Far too few Canadian families take time to examine the alternatives and to figure out the best match between abilities, resources, and realistic job opportunities. They have, instead, accepted the mantra about the extraordinary value of a university degree and do not examine all of the possibilities before them. 

As the first step in the process, students going to post-secondary education and their parents need to take stock. They need to do a realistic assessment of the individual's interests and abilities. A young adult who rarely reads, hates writing and doesn't like mathematics is unlikely to discover many options at university. A young person who tinkers with electrical equipment, likes to work with their hands and enjoys practical problems could be exceptionally well-suited to a technical program in a college.

Quite often, a proper discussion with a potential student could reveal a real exhaustion with organized learning, a desire to travel, a preference for paid employment or other priorities that make it clear that heading directly to a post-secondary institution of any variety is not a good idea.

As people consider the options before them, it is vital to remember that these colleges have changed dramatically in recent years. Many of the college and polytech courses are intellectually demanding, technologically enriched and highly applied. Some are harder to get into than most university programs.

With the excellent connections that colleges and polytechs have to the local and regional job market, these institutions are also careful to match the number of graduates with available opportunities, a measure of restraint and connectedness that does not apply to universities. Many of the colleges are also outfitted with the latest equipment and provide excellent workplace-based learning opportunities.

Canadian youth and their parents need to become much more sophisticated analysts of the world of work and, as well, the training and educational opportunities available to them. We have seen enormous change in the Canadian workforce over the past two decades, tied to technological advances, global competition and the rise of Asia.

The future promises even greater uncertainty. Recent estimates suggest that up to 50 per cent of all North American jobs could be replaced in a generation through digital innovations.

It is unclear what new work will be created. No one knows just what the future holds for young Canadians. What is obvious is that families and individuals have to be much more thoughtful than in the past and must explore all options and opportunities as they prepare for entry to an uncertain and fast-changing workforce. 

Ken Coates is co-author of What to Consider When You Are Considering University (Dundurn 2014) and Campus Confidential: 100 startling things you don't know about Canadian universities​. He is the Canadian Research Chair in Regional Innovation, Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Saskatchewan.

CBC's Information Radio, Radio Noon and Up to Speed are broadcasting live from Red River College campuses across Winnipeg on Thursday, Sept. 4. Tune in throughout the day on CBC Radio One 89.3 FM / 990 AM.