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Higher Education: Too Much of a Good Thing?

July 7, 2018 8:21 AM | Columns

By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, editor, myWestman.ca

Construction Worker

NEEPAWA, Man. — I hold a commerce degree and during university, we had many chances to interact with those already in the workforce. Whether it was in-class presentations, networking events or hiring fairs, the message was always the same, “School is great, but you’ll learn what you actually need to know once you start working.” I don’t think that commerce grads are unique in this experience.

For many young Canadians, post-secondary education opens their eyes to life and ideas. It can be a transformative experience, but as an educational necessity for a job or career, can you have too much of a good thing? Post-secondary degrees no longer guarantee entry to the middle or upper classes and students are being saddled with increasing levels of debt as the cost of education rises.

Today, entry into almost every career, outside the trades, requires some amount of post-secondary education, but should they? Maybe the trades have it right; learning on the job and completing complimentary education to obtain higher levels of recognized proficiency. I think that for many jobs, the educational requirements to just open the door are too high, especially considering that in almost every career, the real learning begins once you start working.

On the surface, higher levels of education sound positive, but what about the unintended consequences? I’m not advocating throwing completely untrained staff into the workforce to wreak havoc, but is the current method shutting out some ideal candidates, especially in areas where it’s hard to find staff or wages are limited? Have we made the initial bar so high that we as a society are losing out?


Training staff takes time and effort — I know this from experience, and I recognize that in many public and private sectors jobs, already thin staffing levels don’t leave much opportunity for the on-the-job training that used to be so prevalent. But the reality is that education is expensive, both in terms of tuition and lost wages, and by forcing people to make the investment before they even know if they like the field has a real impact as we grapple with staffing shortages.

Someone who is interested in the building trades can test the waters as a carpenter’s assistant and get a sense of whether they like the work. From there, they can work towards recognized credentials. Not only do they not have to pay, they can make money testing the waters.

I’m sure the experiences of commerce grads are not all that much different from those in most other professions — what we learn in school bears little resemblance to the work we do once we leave the “perfect world” that exists only in classrooms and text books. For many jobs, we have made post-secondary education the gate keeper, but is that always right? Is that really what we want in every case?

For most professions, a certain amount of education is necessary to ensure that everyone is on the same page with respect to guidelines, best practices and an understanding of what the job entails. Instead of picking hires based on who has completed a certain type of post-secondary education, should we be looking instead at who would be best suited for the job and giving them a pathway to try the job as they gain the experience and education they need to do it effectively?

We end up with people stuck in jobs and careers they don’t like because that’s what they trained for and they carry around the debt they incurred to obtain it. I’m not advocating less education or training, but maybe it’s time to think about when and how it’s delivered.