Sunday, 9 March 2014

You get the degree, then you get the job--right?

You get the degree, then you get the job--right?  When did that ever happen?  Not in my life time. Well, not exactly not in my life time.  I remember one of my senior colleagues at his retirement party talking about when he had just completed his PhD and had to decide which of three University offers he was going to accept.  As he sagely pointed out, that was a time that must seem like a fantasy land to young PhDs these days. Many of the professors who taught me in my first year as an undergrad in 1970 got their jobs of the basis of a PhD in progress.  Without any statistical back-up, my intuition is that the days of “you get the degree and then you get the job” ended around 1970.  

The reason is pretty simple, straightforward demographics--”the baby boom.”  If you have read Boom, Bust and Echo, you can fine turn the demographics to your own case. I can remember when the accepted wisdom was that two years of high school was enough to get you into the labour market.  Smart people graduated high school, and post-secondary education was considered really heady stuff--mixed with a good dose of cynicism. The standard joke where I grew up was “you went to university to get a BS degree, then you got a PHD--Piled Higher and Deeper.”  Jokes notwithstanding, I was convinced that my only chance of a good life was getting into university, and I was far from convinced it would ever be possible--but I did get in.  Except it seemed that so did everyone else, and the new truism was that a University degree, in terms of employment, was the equivalent of Grade 10 (two years of high school) in the old days, only maybe not quite as good because there weren’t as many job openings as there used to be.

I remember the TA (Teaching Assistant, a PhD student--we only got to see the Prof on closed-circuit TV) in my first-year psychology course telling me, when he heard that I was doing a BA in English, that I would never get a job. I don’t remember exactly how I responded but no doubt I said something like “I’m not here to get a job; I’m here to get an education” which I had heard said a dozen times before, and a hundred times since.   In the back of my mind I was of course praying he was wrong.  

As it turned out, in my case, he was wrong.  I got my first teaching job while I was in the 4th year of my BA and I’ve never been unemployed since.  This sounds good, but keep in mind I’ve never said "no" to a job offer and every job I’ve ever held I’ve felt like I just managed to squeeze in and was lucky to have it.  My early jobs teaching ESL had little if anything to do with my education but I was always struggling to make a connection.  In fact, I wasn’t able to make substantial use of what I learned in my BA until twenty-five years later--I was lucky.

The disconnection between university education and employment isn’t new; in fact, I suspect its origins trace all the way back to the beginnings of universities, but recently the situation has gotten acute.  One study suggests that unemployment rates for recent university graduates have reached 25%; another claims that university graduates are actually earning less than high-school graduates.  An American study claimed that 60% of university graduates are either unemployed or under-employed (working part time, at a McJob, etc). 

Last week I read a “good news” article published online by one of my former students vaunting the fact that, based on a longitudinal study conducted by Statistics Canada on the “Labour Market Premiums Associated with a Postsecondary Education,” a BA degree correlates to an additional $724,000 in earnings.  The study followed university students from the 70s and concluded that, over the 20-year period analyzed, men with a BA earned $724,000 more than high-school graduates.   Woman earned $442,000 more.  Since the men under study were in their 50s in the 90s (roughly my cohort), the study really doesn’t have anything to say about the current crisis except perhaps the implied wishful thinking that history will repeat itself. 

More than anything else, the article made me think about how the author, my former student, was an interesting case study of the Byzantine twists and turns between point A and point B, between university education and employment.  He seems to be doing very well, but I remember him being very straightforward that he wasn’t interested in “a job”; he wanted to “a writer” and there was “no plan B.”  He works as a writer and editor for a headhunting company.  He gained some notoriety as a undergraduate by publishing a poetry chapbook.  The signature poem of the book was a sardonic account of his interview with the placement officer in charge of finding internships for students.  My former student is a smart guy, as well as a good writer, and is bound to be conscious of the irony that he now works in the field he once satirized.  My point is simply that if we had told him during his BA that he was being prepared for a career in work placement or human resources, he would have run in the opposite direction.  Similar cases are numerous, my own included. When I ask myself why I never became a lawyer, the first answer that comes to mind is that this was the field my father recommended to me.  As if blindly being determined by the fates I, in turn, recommended law school to my son, who is also not a lawyer.  To this list of incongruities I can add on a pile of anecdotes about lawyers who became construction contractors, an engineer who became a literary critic, and a dentist who became the owner of a used book store.


I am not attempting to whitewash the university for its part in the current crisis; on the contrary, I think the institution, I and my colleagues have a lot to answer for.  We have promoted this crisis in many active ways, but mostly our crime is not caring or at least not caring enough.

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