Transitions to the labour market have become an area of increasing research interest for the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario in the last few years as we continue to hear that students aren’t graduating with the skills and knowledge they need to get the jobs they want. But are these concerns justified? Do students really lack the skills required, or do they simply need to learn to discuss their experiences more effectively? And what can institutions do to help?
These questions promise to be front and centre at HEQCO’s annual conference, Transitions: Learning across borders, sectors and silos, being held in Toronto March 23-24. The conference will examine the variety of transitions that students go through as part of their journey. The goal is to break down some of the artificial barriers that define the education system by engaging representatives from the elementary, secondary, postsecondary and adult learning sectors.
To set the stage in the lead-up to the conference, HEQCO partnered with Academica Group to survey current students and recent graduates about their experiences transitioning into and out of postsecondary education. We received 1,612 responses to the online survey, more than two-thirds coming from current university students.
When asked why they chose to attend PSE, students were largely career-motivated, seeking preparation for their chosen career path. This objective seemed to drive their participation in a number of other activities while at university. To their credit, students reported taking advantage of the various opportunities that were available to them during their studies, including experiential learning, networking opportunities and career-related workshops. Those respondents who hadn’t yet participated in these activities often planned to do so before graduation. Students also reported participating in other activities that could help them develop valuable skills for the labour market, including completing personal research, joining extracurricular teams and volunteering for activities related to their academic field.
Overall, respondents were satisfied with the preparation they were receiving for the labour market. Most students felt that their course of study would leave them either completely (27 percent) or mostly (38 percent) prepared for the workforce, though a substantial portion planned on attending graduate school (38 percent) or completing a professional degree (19 percent). Respondents nearing the end of a professional or graduate degree were also more likely than undergraduate respondents to have accessed career counselling resources, suggesting that this is when students really start planning more intently for their transition to the world of work.
Finally, while respondents were largely optimistic about their job prospects after graduation, they did offer a number of suggestions on how their institutions could better aid them in their transition. They asked for more experiential and work-integrated learning opportunities, so that they could develop a broader network of contacts and experiences. They asked for more career-related workshops and the opportunity to learn practical, career-related skills in class. And they asked, more generically, that their institutions help them find jobs.
The findings tell us that students are enrolling in university because they want jobs – it isn’t their only motivation, but we can’t ignore that it’s a big part. To their credit, students are also taking advantage of the career-related opportunities made available to them on campus, whether to experience their chosen profession first-hand through a co-op placement, to network with professionals in their chosen field, to learn more about the job hunt at career workshops, or to develop transferable skills as a volunteer or during extracurricular activities. But they want more of the opportunities and, as HEQCO would argue, they need better tools to market the value of these experiences to employers. However, that’s a discussion for another day.
Nicholas Dion is senior coordinator of research and programs at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.