The spectre of underemployment

As most university students in North America are reminded (ad nauseam), a post-secondary education is the key to success, a brighter future, and an above-average socioeconomic status. Aspiring career-hunters and academics alike are assured that, with a healthy dose of determination and ‘stick-to-it-iv-ness,’ a career will be waiting for them after convocation. But in a highly competitive atmosphere—one that does not seem to favour arts and humanities diplomas—the future is quite uncertain. Instead of specialized occupations, college grads are increasingly falling into jobs and facing a very modern dilemma: the spectre of underemployment.

The term “underemployment” is synonymous with a dramatic loss of economic potential among many young people in Western society. Excluding overqualified immigrants, who in fact comprise many of Canada’s underemployed, the number of undergraduates holding jobs requiring just a high school education has increased dramatically over the past two decades. According to a Statistics Canada report from 2006 entitled “The Dynamics of Overqualification,” the rates of underemployment rose by one third between the years 1993-2001. In human capital, that represents over 100,000 individuals whose education has served a meagre, utilitarian purpose: supporting an unstable lifestyle in low-security jobs with little opportunity for upward mobility.

This dilemma is highlighted in an excerpt from the aforementioned StatsCan report: “Overqualification is an important issue for employees, employers, and policy makers. On a personal level, it has a psychological dimension. Underemployed university grads often experience the frustration of lower earnings and job dissatisfaction. It could be a personal choice for some to work in a lower skilled job because of better career opportunities, higher family responsibilities, or to improve the quality of life such as being less stressed. For the nation as a whole, however, it represents an underutilization of human capital.” 

So, who is coming to the rescue of the younger generation, frequently coaxed into accepting massive student debt for the dubious promise of prosperity after graduation? Who will speak for them?

Brought to the fore by Quebec student protesters during the summer, the disillusionment felt by many university graduates—in Canada and the United States—is potent and alarming. Tied to debt, rising tuition fees, and the overarching reality of a stagnant job market, students have taken it upon themselves to expose the deeper contradictions of a system in the midst of a generational divide. What was an acceptable path to a career thirty years ago, for example, is now out of reach. With the exception of highly-specialized certificates, a diploma earned in the arts, humanities, or commerce (a popular, go-to faculty) becomes an achievement that is minimized and hobbled before it has a chance to grow. Tack-on the average $35,000 of student loans, and the prospect of future degrees and specializations become even dimmer.

It is important to note, however, that the gap in Canada’s labour market is caused by a disequilibrium; people simply aren’t pursuing careers in the areas where actual job growth is happening. Occupations in mining and energy extraction, the nation’s fastest-growing sectors, are receiving little attention despite a federal push to herald them as beacons of opportunity.

Yet the disconnect between employer and employee is further exacerbated by a lack of policy toward stimulating job mobility, and filling the wide gaps that exist. It is estimated that, without efforts to boost the diversification of the job market, more than 1.5 million postings could be left unfilled by 2020. A startling conclusion indeed, but is it enough to stir the movement of governments and young people to extricate themselves from a dependency on university education as the only path to success?

As a twenty-three year old with a B.A. (Hons.) in history, I can attest to the difficulties of entering a competitive market with ostensibly ‘common’ qualifications. It is frustrating and unfortunate that, even with an advanced degree, I am still left searching for a way to upgrade my education in hopes of securing greater socioeconomic stability—however elusive. In such an uncertain world, what type of future can we expect? Currently, the pattern is continuing. Under Stephen Harper’s conservative government, an emphasis has been placed firmly on policy that will deepen a cycle of underemployment in Canada. The promotion of private sector jobs has placed growth in the hands of corporate entities that, guided by the profit motive, claim limited liability and responsibility for the wellbeing of their employees. Preference for shareholders, not workers, has defined the trend.

After all, one thing is certain: a reassessment of post-secondary education as a panacea for all of life’s economic anxieties must occur. Without such critical examination and forethought, students, graduates, and young people alike face a most uncertain future where the spectre and reality of underemployment weighs heavily.