Strategic Studies

Experts offer hot tips for a cold job market

November 15 1993

Strategic Studies

Experts offer hot tips for a cold job market

November 15 1993

Strategic Studies

Experts offer hot tips for a cold job market

Career Opportunity! University graduate wanted immediately for management trainee position in a fast-growing chain of coffee and doughnut service outlets. Some evening and weekend shifts. Minimum wage. No tips. Name tag, hairnet and garish polyester uniform supplied.

If help-wanted ads imitated university students’ nightmares, such a notice would be a familiar sight in classified ads across Canada. With the economy mired in a punishing slump, many students are questioning whether any degree will improve their job prospects. Those who forecast job trends say that some of that cynicism is understandable. But they add that a university degree, or a college diploma, still significantly improves an individual’s chances of landing a job, particularly if students choose their courses wisely.


MAJOR UNEMPLOYMENT RATE 1%) Bachelor Degrees Pharmacy 1 Computer Science 6 Mathematics 6 Civil Engineering 6 Commerce 7 English 11 Physics 14 Psychology 15 Biology 18 History 18 Political Science 24 Professional and Graduate Degrees Medicine 2 Law 7 English MA 24 Source: Job Futures (Employment aod Immigration Canada. 1990). In October. 1993. the overall unemployment rate in Canada was 11.1 per cent.

The first tip from the experts: Stay in school. In October, among Canadians aged 15 to 24, the unemployment rate for university graduates was 9.9 per cent; for those with a college diploma or an equivalent trade certificate, it was 12.5 per cent. That compares with a rate of 14 per cent for high-school graduates, and 22.3 per cent for high-school dropouts. What is more, the value of higher education is on the rise. According to Employment Canada projections, one-half of all new jobs created in the 1990s will require at least some postsecondary training, compared with less than a quarter of those in 1986.

Tip number 2: Don’t shy away from math, science and computer courses. A 1990 study by Employment Canada, entitled Job Futures, which was based on a survey of 1986 graduates, showed that the unemployment rate among arts specialists was far higher than among those with backgrounds in mathematics, applied science or computer science (see box). But Wayne Roth, director of Employment Canada’s Labour Market Outlook division, says that many students are not looking at employment figures when choosing a major. “In some of the courses where the demand for graduates has increased the fastest, like computer science,” notes Roth, “the proportion of students graduating in those fields is actually declining.”

Tip number 3: Don’t overspecialize. Although a minority of employers and job placement counsellors recommend focusing on a specific field, most urge students to remain flexible and to study a wide range of subjects. The Employment Canada study reported that new graduates of bachelor-level programs in the pure sciences, such as physics, chemistry and biology, were just as likely to be unemployed as those with arts backgrounds. And even graduates of some specialized community college programs, like forestry technologies, were caught by economic downturns in their industries.

Still confused? For some down-to-earth guidance, Maclean’s Researcher-Reporter Julie Cazzin and Associate Business Editor John Daly asked nine prominent Canadians for their reflections, and advice.

Before going on to do graduate studies in economics at the University of California at Berkeley, Galbraith studied animal husbandry at the Ontario Agricultural College (now the University of Guelph). There, he took what he considers the least useful course of his undergraduate years. “It was called Pumps and Plumbing,” Galbraith says, “known to students at the time as Pumps and Shithouses.” A celebrated economist and onetime adviser to president John F. Kennedy, Galbraith warns against viewing a university education solely as job training. “There is nothing so limiting,” he says, “as specialization.”

JOHN KIM BELL, 40 Composer, conductor, president of the Canadian Native Arts Foundation

Bell, who graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in music performance from Ohio State University in 1975, remembers his six-hour-aday piano practice sessions as “character building.” Adds Bell: “It took a lot of discipline to sit at that smiling demon every day—and discipline is crucial to success.” Still, Bell maintains that his years in university were “a waste of time.” And he says that the most valuable lessons can only be learned on the job. “I grew a lot when I worked as a Broadway conductor, learning such basic job skills as writing, public speaking, organizing, fund-raising and budgeting.”

SUE COLEMAN, 36 Vice-president and mutual fund manager, Altamira Management Ltd.

At Carleton University in the 1970s, Coleman specialized in behavioral pharmacology, which she describes as “giving drugs to rats and watching what happens.” It was worlds apart from her current job as manager of Altamira’s hot Special Growth Fund. But Coleman says that taking a variety of subjects, especially in the sciences, gives students an edge. “It is a classic case of learning how to learn,” she says. “You don’t get intimidated as easily because you know a bit about every-

thing.” Even her obscure biology courses have proved helpful in analysing biotechnology stocks. But there are limits. “I took an art appreciation course one year and the first assignment was to identify painters by their brushstrokes,” she chuckles. “I was hopeless at it, and ended up dropping it.”

GEORGE COHON, 56 Senior chairman, McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada Ltd.

Cohon obtained a law degree from Northwestern University in Chicago in 1961. He says that he loved debating in university because it taught him how to think an argument through. Now, his company gives many university students their first taste of job experience. Relentlessly upbeat, Cohon advises students to “take courses that turn you on. Maybe you’ll end up doing what you studied. Maybe not.”

ROBERT HALLBAUER, 63 President, Comineo Ltd.

Hallbauer’s advice for university students: “If I wanted to be facetious, I’d say take up bank-

MARGOT FRANSSEN, 41 President, The Body Shop Canada

Franssen has opened more than 100 Body Shop stores in the past 14 years—and has done plenty of hiring along the way. She says that she looks for “people with integrity, intelligence and problem-solving skills.” She also prefers “someone unencumbered by experience.” Students, she adds, should study anything that gets their creative juices flowing—“definitely not something that only relates to getting a job.” In fact, Franssen, who studied philosophy at York University, says that the most useful course she took “was a humanitarian course on love.”


Author and chairman, The Ondaatje Corp.

“Canada is full of overeducated people,” says Ondaatje, who dropped out of high school at the age of 17. “There simply are not enough jobs to go around and if you think the situation is going to improve, you’re dreaming.” Ondaatje cautions that students may have to go outside Canada to pursue their careers. “Study whatever, but be sure you can apply it on a global level,” he says. “Your knowledge can be used in places where it is most needed, southeast Asia for one.”

ruptcy law.” All kidding aside, Hallbauer says that when he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1954 with a bachelor’s degree in mining engineering, the Canadian resource sector was in a slump. “I had a tough time getting a job,” he says. Now that jobs are scarce again, Hallbauer urges students to choose their courses with a career in mind. People who advise them just to take subjects they enjoy, says Hallbauer, “don’t know where the money comes from in this country. ”

SHARON CARSTAIRS, 51 Former leader, Manitoba Liberal party, now teaching political science at the University of Manitoba

Students, says Carstairs, “should be going to university to get the broadest possible education”—both inside and outside of the classroom. When she attended Dalhousie University in the 1950s, Carstairs recalls, “I gained so much by being involved in drama productions, in student council.” Today, she says, “the students are all concerned about maintaining

their grade-point averages.” Yet, despite all that hard work, Carstairs says that a simple undergraduate degree is worth less to employers now than it was in her day. “Young people are just going have to accept the fact that they are going to have to go to school longer.”

RONALD CHARLES, 48 Partner, Caldwell Partners Amrop International Inc.

Charles, whose firm scouts top-level executive talent for corporate clients, sees a big gap between what students are studying and its relevance to the job market. “I’ve met university students who have two degrees and can’t get a job,” says Charles. “Many end up going to a community college to get the skills they really need for the workforce.” Charles says that “young people have to go out and start their own businesses.” He also encourages university students to decide early on whether they will be specialists or generalists. “Students have to understand that specialists usually work on a contract basis,” he warns. “Few are being hired full-time anymore.” □