Dire jobs prospects for youth can't be solved with education alone

Higher education is one way of beginning a career, but there are lots of others and we do young people a disservice by not showing them alternatives, says one expert.

More flexibility needed in guiding young workers toward careers, experts say

Teachers and computer geeks mentor young women in a Girls Who Code class. Young people need skills, but not necessarily the ones they learn in university, experts say. (Eric Risberg/Associated Press)

One thing we older Canadians don’t envy about the young:  their job prospects.  Today’s monthly jobs report from Statistics Canada highlights an unemployment rate for those aged 15 to 24 that’s close to double that for the general public.

Surely the solution is simple. Higher education is the path to success, for individuals and for our economy at large. Right?  

Not so fast, says Ryan Porter, the founder of, a website aimed at designing career paths that don’t require a university degree.  

“It’s time for us to focus on the other roles that need to be filled in our economy,” says the energetic 32-year-old from Ajax, Ont.  We met last week when he was a guest on The Lang & O’Leary Exchange.  

“From kindergarten, we put the spotlight on college and force-feed students statistics about how much more money college grads earn, and talk about the jobs, opportunities and success that will be waiting for them after college,” Porter wrote in a recent blog post. “And ultimately, we make sure to illustrate potential perils should students decide not to go to college. 'You don’t want to end up working in a factory, do you?' we’ll say.”

Job snobbery

Who hasn’t heard an example of that type of job snobbery? We may all know in our hearts that any kind of honest work is honourable, but there does seem to be a cultural prejudice these days, that those who are highly educated and highly paid are somehow better than those who work with their hands, or in lower-income professions.  
Ryan Porter designs career paths that don't require a degree. (CBC)

Porter points to a study from the Bureau of Labour Statistics in the U.S., that says 75 per cent of future entry-level jobs won’t demand a bachelor’s degree.  He also encourages me to read the Trailblazers section of his website, that tells the stories of Eric the self-taught software engineer, Jacqueline the freelance writer, and Dustin the bar owner.  All are gainfully employed without having spent years and thousands of dollars on post-secondary education.

Porter’s philosophy rings a bell for me. My first full-time job out of high school was at a temp agency, where I gave typing and filing tests to applicants, including some who had master's degrees and even PhD’s. They were eager for work — any work — even minimum wage clerk positions. I remember being nervous as I broached the subject of the low pay, and was surprised when the first question asked, again and again, was “how soon can I get an assignment?”

Not surprisingly, the president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, is quick to dispute this perspective.

“Alternative routes may be helpful for some individuals,” says Paul Davidson, “But the surest path to employment is through Canada’s post-secondary education system.”

Need for higher skills

Davidson is at a skills symposium in Charlottetown right now, along with provincial education and labour market ministers.  “Talking to experts from around the world and looking at the trends, there’s no question we’re going to need higher skills in our workforce,” he says.

The data back him up.  “Two-thirds of all projected job openings are in occupations usually requiring post-secondary education or in management occupations,” according to a study done three years ago for Employment and Social Development Canada.  

Young people will make more money and have better odds of staying employed if they are well-educated.  But you don’t need data, just common sense, to know that every economy needs all sorts of professionals, including those who have just a high school diploma.

Davidson agrees. “We need more plumbers and carpenters, and we also need more graduates from university and college,” he says.  “It’s not an either-or situation.  It’s both-and.”

Ryan Porter’s focus on career paths that don’t include higher education does go against common wisdom.  But Microsoft likes it. Raise Your Flag won $10,000 in a contest the company sponsored last month.  And at least one Canadian economist thinks the site is a good idea.  

“You don’t see those kinds of things very often,” says Francis Fong a senior economist with TD who’s written on the subject of youth unemployment.

Underemployed? Hang in there!

“So many of the career websites are very, very focused on post-secondary education. There’s not a lot of resources out there for people with less than that.  And ultimately, the world needs individuals to fill all sorts of crucial job needs.”

For Ryan Porter, it’s not about bashing university or college.  “I just think there are a lot of people there who shouldn’t be, and I also think there’s a lot of people who should be at university or college that aren’t,” he explains.  “It’s really about just equalizing post-secondary options and opportunities, giving people a true understanding of what the landscape is, instead of having 12 years of school that tell you university is for smart, successful people, and the workplace is for failures.”

And for all those unemployed or underemployed young people who are part of today’s jobs report, hang in there.  By 2016, in some parts of the economy, there will be more Canadians retiring than there will be entering the workforce.  

About the Author

Dianne Buckner has reported on entrepreneurs for two decades. She hosts Dragons' Den on CBC Television and is part of the business news team at CBC News Network.