Canada’s grad students: overeducated, underemployed

After years of toiling in Canada's hallowed halls, the future looks bleak for the country's postgraduate students thanks to an anemic labour market with few job prospects for teachers, lawyers and surgeons.

As of January 2013, the youth (ages 15 to 24) unemployment rate sits at 13.6 per cent – almost double the national average of 7 per cent.

Adding an extra layer of stress, young Canadians now owe more than $15 billion in student debt, according to the Canadian Federation of Students and 58 per cent of students plan to graduate with $20,000 or more in loans, says a recent BMO poll.

In Canada, law school can cost anywhere from $7,000 to $25,000 per year while education programs start at a minimum of $6,000. Yearly med school fees can range anywhere from $6,000 all the way to $20,000.

High levels of student debt and a lack of employment opportunities have created a perfect storm of delayed adulthood or boomerang kids - adult children forced to move home with Mom and Dad. More than 25 per cent of young adults -- ranging in age from 25 to 29 -- now live with their parents, according to the latest census data; more than double figures from 1981.

All that said, universities aren’t scaling back on the number of students admitted to graduate programs. In contrast, some universities are increasing their acceptance rates or lowering their admission requirements, leading to more overeducated and underemployed Canadians.

The University of Ottawa’s Law faculty has steadily increased the number of applicants it accepts over the past decade. In 2002, 220 first-year law students were registered at the university. In 2012, the number was 377. Law firms and government positions have not increased at the same rate. Fifteen per cent of law school graduates were unable to secure an articling position last year, according to the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Articling Task Force.

Katherine Melnychuk, a second-year law student at the University of Saskatchewan, says the lack of jobs is forcing graduates to relocate for employment.

“In our college, 70 per cent of the students are from outside Saskatchewan,” she says. “At my firm, I’m the only student from Saskatchewan. I definitely think that’s a trend of students coming from elsewhere to Saskatchewan and ending up staying here.”

Even though an articling shortage is evident, that message is not communicated to future grads.

“The upper years tended to say 'don’t worry,'” says Parneet Kahlon, a third-year law student at the University of Toronto. “So I can’t say that I felt there was a huge scarcity by just talking to my peers.”

Future litigators aren’t the only ones who will have to deal with unemployment and interest-accumulating debt.

Graduates of the five-year orthopaedic surgery residency program know Canada is in need of their services. According to the Fraser Institute’s national waiting list survey, orthopaedic surgery wait times are the highest in Canada. On average, it takes five months to see a specialist, and an additional five-month wait time before surgery is performed.

And yet, graduates have little chance of finding a full-time position, according to a release from the Canadian Medical Association. Orthopaedic surgery residency positions increased 129 per cent from 2002 to 2010, says the CMA, yet the overall number of orthopaedic surgeons increased by only 18 per cent in Canada for the same time period.

“It would be useful if the ministries of health and the colleges of medicine and the national specialist societies worked in closer conjunction to fine-tune the funding system so that we don’t continue to exasperate the situation,” says Dr. Geoff Johnston, president of the Canadian Orthopaedic Association.

Orthopaedic grads who can’t find work have three options:

  • Work locums for surgeons on holiday or who are unable or unwilling to work anti-social shifts
  • Continue their education by applying for fellowships
  • Move to a country with better employment options like the United States, where, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, the need for orthopaedic surgeons matches the job opportunities available.

“I would only suggest a fellowship if there was a true sense that it would enhance a [graduate's] ability to deliver the care that they want,” says Dr. Johnston. “I’m the last one to suggest that they go to the States, but if the problems are here, there are places elsewhere which still need orthopaedic surgeons.”

Job prospects in education are just as bleak. In 2012, B.C.’s Education Minister George Abbott warned for every teaching position in the province, there were three applicants vying for the position, according to a Vancouver Sun article.

A study by the Ontario College of Teachers showed the unemployment rate in 2010 was at 24 per cent, eight times higher than in 2006.

“I was told that it is difficult to get a job after graduating,” says Mandy Cooper, a first-year student at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Education. ”I may not live in Saskatchewan afterwards and believe if I move somewhere else it will be harder for me to get a job.”

Despite the negative statistics and stories, hope is not lost among students and professionals. Graduate study may not lead directly to employment, but students say it's worth the extra time and money spent.

“They still love what they might be able to do,” says Dr. Johnston of students applying for orthopaedic surgery residencies. “They certainly seem to be aware that there is an issue right now, but that doesn’t seem to dampen their enthusiasm.”

Youth unemploymentCGA researcher Rock Lefebvre says the situation for young workers isn't as bleak as it's often made out to be. And he's confident that opportunities will emerge with some small policy changes.