Illustration showing graduates walking across grad cap perched on cliff
Research & Trends

Canada’s misleading unemployment statistics

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Statistics Canada tells us that our rate of unemployment is about 5%. And that’s the number that sticks in most peoples’ minds.

That’s a problem because it doesn’t come close to measuring what is actually going on in the economy.

A BNN Bloomberg program from earlier this year pointed out that 83% of job openings do not require a university degree. In the U.S., the headlines keep telling us that unemployment is at, or near, historical lows. However, this masks the reality that many people – including college grads – are working more than one job. They’re not doing that by choice; it’s what they have to do to pay their bills.

If a smart, capable Canadian university graduate is driving for Uber, working for Tim Hortons or Walmart, that’s OK with the government. They’re employed, period.

It’s not OK.

No government is going to voluntarily change their approach on this issue. They’re benefiting from publishing these low unemployment numbers and often refer to them as an example of the fine job they’re doing.

While many of our university graduates are doing well, far too many are unemployed or underemployed. So, what can we do? We can focus on how to help our graduates get into meaningful employment. I’ve been doing that for years and will share some of what I’ve learned with you.

We need to recognize the uniqueness of what our graduates are experiencing. It’s very different from that of previous generations. It’s not that long ago that it was rare to find a university graduate who was unemployed or working at a menial job. That’s hard to believe given what graduates have experienced in recent decades.

Consider these quotes:

“A whopping 96% of chief academic officers at higher education institutions say their institution is ‘very or somewhat’ effective at preparing students for the world of work. … And barely one in 10 (11%) business leaders strongly agree that college graduates have the skills and competencies that their workplaces need.” Gallup, 2014

“People over their forties in Canada have no idea what it’s like for a young person trying to find a pathway to adulthood right now.” – Judith Maxwell, past chair of the Economic Council of Canada, The Globe and Mail, 2012

Based on my own experience over the years, I can say that it is unacceptable to send our graduates out into the workplace as unprepared as many of them are.

Man smiling while shaking hands during job interview
Setting students up for success

For starters, here are three things I suggest to increase our graduates’ chances of finding meaningful work. We need to do these before they graduate.

1. Every graduate needs to answer this question: “What would a search of social media reveal about you?” Tell them that nearly six in 10 employers have found content on social media that led them not to hire a candidate, according to a 2018 survey from CareerBuilder.

Their advisor, mentor, or career counsellor must make sure that they can answer the question in a comprehensive way. Many will need help on how to eliminate problem areas. As personal branding guru Dan Schawbel puts it, “Your first impression is no longer a handshake, it’s a Google search for your name.”

2. They must have an effective resume that employers will respond to favourably. I’m constantly surprised by the poor-quality resumes of many of the smartest, capable graduates I work with.

I shouldn’t be. Knowing how to create an effective resume is not a part of their education.

However, not having an effective resume is a major reason why graduates are struggling to get hired. Again, their advisor, mentor, or career counsellor must ensure that they have an effective resume.

3. I find that graduates’ connectedness to and understanding of their target sector is minimal. That’s a problem in today’s workplace. The people who are doing well are very connected to their sector and are aware of the key issues going on in it. They also belong to at least one of the main professional associations in their sector and are active on one or more committees. That’s where the real networking takes place.

Explain to students they need to create a database of all available information sources related to the sector they want to work in. Professional associations, online and printed materials, blogs, newsletters, and upcoming conventions and trade shows. Once they have all this information, they need to get busy and learn everything they can about the sector. In doing this, they’ll perform much better in job interviews and employers will be impressed.

They’re also likely to find out about employment opportunities that are never advertised.

Social media has a role to play here if they are mature, discreet and understand the etiquette required to contact people.

The role of employers

Applying the above strategies will significantly increase graduates’ chances of finding meaningful employment. However, employers also have a role to play in supporting the success of young workers.

I’ve hired my share of graduates over the years and worked as a recruiter for six years. When I hired a recent graduate, I knew it was my responsibility to train them to do the work I needed done.

That’s what employers have always done. Today, I see regular comments in the media from employers who say they can’t find the workers they need. I suggest to these employers that there are lots of smart, capable graduates available who can do the work they need done – but they’ll need to train them.

I also suggest that they be more flexible in their evaluation of applicants. As I said, some of the most impressive graduates I’ve worked with had awful resumes. Understand that many applicants have never been shown how to create an effective resume. I assure employers that behind some of those awful resumes are employees you’d love to have.

To build a better future, we need to act

The number of graduates who are unemployed and underemployed is a problem that keeps me up at night. I cringe at our society’s complacency about this and worry about the number of graduates who are accepting it as the new normal.

This is a huge waste of their education and talent. The cost to our economy must be immense, never mind the toll it is taking on the graduates and their families.

Student unions, from the university to the national level, need to get involved. They’re the most important groups that represent and advocate for our students.

And all of us, as a society, must stop being complacent. We need to speak up, advocate, get creative and resolve to put an end to this waste.

Our graduates are our future. It’s time we started acting like it.

Ron McGowan Author
Ron McGowan has operated for about 20 years. He has been published internationally, including in The Globe and Mail and The Wall Street Journal. He has been on various Canadian TV networks and on radio programs in Canada and the U.S.
Ron McGowan Author
Ron McGowan has operated for about 20 years. He has been published internationally, including in The Globe and Mail and The Wall Street Journal. He has been on various Canadian TV networks and on radio programs in Canada and the U.S.