Is Canada's education system preparing young people for a future in which there will be even fewer traditional jobs?
Derrick Cumby says that 1995 was his worst year ever. The 31-year-old carpenter from Hopeall, Nfld., 100 km west of St. John's, managed to find work for only eight weeks in the past 12 months—not enough to qualify for unemployment insurance. His wife, Jackie, meanwhile, has a clerical job at The Evening Telegram in St. John's, more than an hour's commute away. That has left the couple supporting their two children, Heather, 14, and Keisha, 1, on little more than one income. Cumby says he desperately wants to return to school to train for a new job. “These days, being a carpenter isn’t enough,” he says. ‘You have to be educated in an area where there’s jobs.” But he is angry that, so far, the federal government has failed to help, the only training programs currently available being for fishermen and UI recipients. “It pisses me off that they can get retrained,” he argues, “but what about the rest of us who can’t find jobs and really want to work?”
Such frustration over education, jobs and the future quality of life resounds throughout the 1995 Maclean’s/CBC News year-end poll. Amid alarming levels of general pessimism, Canadians are especially concerned about their employment prospects. Related matters—hours of work and leisure time, for instance, and the value of education—also figure highly on their worry lists. Fully 85 per cent of respondents believe that, by the end of the decade, it will be even harder for young Canadians to find meaningful work. When it comes to education, the outlook is almost as glum: fully 71 per cent of respondents say that the value of a high-school diploma will diminish in the years ahead, while a quarter anticipate a decline in the quality of gradeschool education. Thirty-two per cent anticipate that the average working person will be putting in even longer hours.
According co Statistics Canada, a net loss of 44,000 jobs in November wiped out all the gains of the previous three months in the biggest single-month decline since March, 1992. That left total employment only three-tenths of one per cent higher than it was at the start of the year. While there were 20,000 new part-time jobs that month, 64,000 full-time positions disappeared. And it was only because the number of people actually looking for work dropped significantly—especially among 15-to-24-year-olds, many of whom are riding out tough times in school—that the unemployment rate remained constant at 9.4 per cent As the statistics underline, the very nature of work is undergoing a radical transformation—and the education system is scrambling to keep pace. “A pattern has been unfolding for several years in the economy that is directing what is happening,” says David Lawson, a career counsellor at McMaster University in Hamilton and a partner in a private employment consulting firm. “Canada made a choice to integrate into the global marketplace and compete with companies around the world, and has simply had to withdraw from certain kinds of activities. That, in turn, has determined where opportunities begin to rise and where they begin to shrink.”
Technological innovation and automation have begun to wipe out thousands of jobs, especially in the labor-intensive manufacturing and resource sectors, at the same time as they are creating new opportunities for highly educated and skilled workers. Routine work, however, is also being lost through relocation, as companies move their operations to countries with cheaper labor pools. And, in the new workplace lingo, as employers “re-engineer” to cut costs and remain competitive, they have begun to “out-source” many previously in-house functions to consultants and freelancers. Most business futurists predict that, in the years to come, increasing numbers of people will be working out of their own homes, often on a contract or “as needed” basis, essentially operating as self-employed service providers.
. YOUTHFUL REALITY CHECK
86% of 18-to 24-year-old Canadians, normally an optimistic group, say that young people will find it even harder to find meaningful work in five years than now
ALL WORK AND NO PLAY
Many Canadians who work outside the home see little chance of their lives becoming easier in the next five years
43% to of them have even expect less time for leisure and recreation
32% them believe hours of work will be longer
That current trend is almost certain to continue. “It is a prelude to even more people going into business for themselves,” says Toronto-based human resources consultant Colin Campbell, who predicts that, by the end of the decade, fewer than half of all jobs will be permanent, full-time positions. “If you have three to five part-time jobs at once, it is not too much of a stretch to turn yourself into a company and have those people as clients.” Adds Lawson: “What has changed is that people in almost all areas of employment are finding themselves in the position of having to be entrepreneurs right now. You need to keep reinventing yourself, reselling yourself. Job search used to be a onetime activity for people. For a lot of people right now, it is day-to-day.” For many, the transformation is proving stressful. “Contracts are harder because there is just not that sense of security that you would feel if you had a permanent job,” says Ruth Berzins, a student employment adviser at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont. Although Statistics Canada reports that the average actual hours of work did not increase substantially in the past decade—in 1985, the average worker put in 37.6 hours a week compared with 37.7 hours in 1994—many employees who have survived corporate downsizing say that they are now expected to work harder, with fewer resources. That, say observers, may explain why, despite the promises of the technological age, nearly one-third of poll respondents feel that working hours will likely increase—and why 43 per cent expect even less time for leisure and recreation in the future.
In the new economy, career counsellors say, those with the broadest skills base are the most marketable—and the likeliest to succeed. Not surprisingly, Campbell, author of Where the Jobs Are: Career Survival for Canadians in the New Global Economy, predicts that “increasingly, levels of education, experience and training will dictate income levels, as well as type and length of employment”
The statistics already bear that out. While the average unemployment rate in 1994, for example, was 10.4 per cent, it stood at 16.4 per cent for those who had completed only some high school, 10 per cent for high-school graduates, and 5.4 per cent for those with university degrees. Unskilled youth are far and away the new economy’s biggest losers. While unemployment for 15-to-24-year-olds stood at 16.5 per cent last year, the highest for any age group, among young people with only an elementary school education it was a staggering
28.7 per cent. The rate among those with only some secondary school was marginally better at 22.9 per cent; for high-school graduates, 15.8 per cent; for holders of a postsecondary certificate or diploma, 11.7 per cent; and for young university graduates, 9.6 per cent—still high but less than the national average of all ages.
In the five years since 1990, the number of positions held by people with postsecondary diplomas or degrees rose by 1.3 million, compared with a decline of 800,000 jobs for those with less education. “A lot of jobs used to be tactile and visual in nature,” says Campbell. “That meant that people with lower skills could kind of intuitively figure things out. But we are now moving into a sort of abstract world. A lot of companies just won’t hire high-school graduates any more. Some now literally require forklift operators to be able to read balance sheets and financial statements.”
These days, as hierarchical corporate structures are replaced by small, project-based “teams,” employers are placing greater emphasis on multidisciplinary skills. And human resources professionals now emphasize the importance of “lifelong learning,” the need to be constantly updating skills in order to keep pace and avoid becoming redundant. “You may get a diploma or degree, but you need something more to give you a competitive advantage,” says Campbell. “Otherwise, you are showing up at an employer’s door along with countless others who also have those qualifications. A bachelor’s degree is now a bit like Grade 12 used to be; you really need to combine it with broad-based business skills, technological skills and excellent communications skills.” Faced with the new realities—and unprecedented levels of uncertainty— fully half of poll respondents say that they are more pessimistic about the future than they were a decade ago. And while 18-to-25-year-olds are generally the most hopeful—41 per cent say they are optimistic about the future, compared with only 27 per cent of those between the ages of 45 and 54—that positive outlook evaporates when it comes to questions concerning their personal expectations. “While young people may be modestly more optimistic about the future, we have never seen them so pessimistic about issues that affect them: the worth of a high-school diploma, their prospects of employment,” says Allan Gregg, chairman of the Strategic Counsel, which conducted the poll. Indeed, of the poll’s youngest respondents, 86 per cent expect it to get harder in coming years for Canadian youth to find meaningful work. And 73 per cent of them feel that the value of a high-school education is bound to decrease, compared with only 60 per cent of those aged 65 and over.
Many critics say that what is needed are better links among education, training and employment. Auditor General Denis Desautels recently reported that, while the federal human resources department spent $2 billion on training in 1994, it failed to successfully analyse why some programs work and others do not. “The department doesn’t have answers to some fundamental questions on training support,” said Desautels.
Meanwhile, the role of the education system is also being questioned. “More and more people want to know that there is going to be a payoff at the end of their studies—in other words, a job,” says Lawson. “A lack of connection between education and the workplace is something that I don’t think we can afford any more.” On that point Derrick Cumby, who was busily crafting wooden furniture in the hopes of raising money to buy Christmas presents for his family, would surely agree.
With JENNIFER PRITCHETT in Halifax
Canadians believe it will become more difficult to find work with only a basic education
71% say a high-school diploma will be worth less, or even worthless, when it comes to getting a job • Young people aged 18 to 24 are more likely to say that (73%) than people over 65 (60%) • Those earning more than $60,000 annually are also more likely to have that opinion (77%) than those who earn less (68%)
And they show little faith that primary schools will improve
58% enpect the quality of grade school education to be no better, or even worse, in five years • People in the Prairie provinces are most likely to think schools will actually be worse (31%), compared with the national percentage (25%) • People under 55 are also more likely to believe that (28%) than those 55 or older (15%)
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.