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A job seeker talks with representatives from The JNE of Companies at a NAPP Canada Job Fair in Ontario.

Trades rival college degrees

Canada labor market desires skilled workers

– Ellie MacRae is taking summer classes to accelerate a four-year degree in early childhood studies, even as she worries her efforts won’t pay off like her boyfriend’s electrical training.

“Undergraduate degrees don’t get you a job,” said MacRae, 21, who is in her second year at Toronto’s Ryerson University. Her boyfriend “will have an easier time finding a job than me. There’s just a lot more opportunities in the trades.”

Canadian mining and resource companies such as TransCanada Corp., in Calgary, say they are struggling to find skilled workers while the country’s education system focuses more on preparing high school students for university instead of colleges where trades are taught. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is increasing funding for training with youth facing joblessness that’s more than twice as high as other workers.

One historical advantage of a university degree has been fading: the jobless rate for those with bachelor’s degrees was 4.5 percent in May, compared with 5.4 percent for trade school graduates, according to Statistics Canada. Twenty years ago, university graduates had 6.2 percent unemployment, compared with 10 percent for those with trade school certificates.

Producing skilled workers and matching them to the best jobs is critical for Canada, where exports make up one-third of output, shipments that are threatened by lagging productivity and a strong currency.

Choosing the right education is also more important now. Canadians ages 24 and younger faced an unemployment rate last year that was 2.4 times that of workers ages 25 to 54, the highest differential in more than three decades, Statistics Canada data show.

The jobless rate for Canadians between 15 and 24 was 14.3 percent in 2012, up from 11.2 percent in 2007 before the last recession, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris. In the U.S., youth unemployment was 16.2 percent in 2012, up from 10.5 percent five years earlier.

Mimosa Kabir learned firsthand the relative value of education in the job market. After earning her four-year bachelor of arts degree in development studies in 2010, she decided to enroll Humber College in Toronto for a one-year fundraising certificate because she said she was “very apprehensive about finding work.” She was offered a job before graduation.

“Employers still value the idea of a B.A., but because everyone these days seems to have one, it’s no longer enough,” said Kabir, 24, a fundraising coordinator at the Toronto Public Library Foundation. “There’s just no way to get ‘proven experience’ when everything you’ve been learning is theoretical.”

The country’s education system is the most skewed toward preparing students for university instead of the trades, according to the Conference Board of Canada study of 16 economies. Some 94 percent of high school students were in academic programs in 2010, with the remaining 6 percent in vocational training, according to the board’s annual competitiveness report. In nine of Canada’s peers, the rate of vocational training was more than 50 percent. Comparable U.S. figures were not available because the country defines vocational training differently.

“It means there are fewer people prepared for the jobs that exist in the economy,” said Michael Bloom, vice-president of organizational effectiveness and learning at the Conference Board, in Ottawa. “In Canada, we don’t have language that conveys the idea of high prestige in a trade. In Europe, I think there is more of a vocabulary. We have to find a way to create an opportunity in the school system for kids to make those choices.”

The Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada said in a May 30 report their industry needs between 125,000 and 150,000 workers by 2022, a staffing level exacerbated by “significant challenges in the availability of skills and talent required.”

The economy is struggling with a “mismatch” between jobs and skills and “it exists in many regions and industries,” Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said in an interview last month. He cited needs beyond resource firms, such as software companies in Waterloo, Ontario, and computer game-makers in Montreal.

Companies in resource-rich Alberta and Saskatchewan are recruiting nationwide and overseas. Finance Minister Flaherty told reporters in a March 8 press conference he would focus this year’s budget on skills training after he met a university graduate on a Toronto subway who was bagging groceries because he couldn’t find a better job.

Flaherty’s fiscal plan allocated $1.33 billion for investment-tax credits and $481 million in grants to train workers, even as other programs were cut in a bid to reduce Canada’s deficit. Some of the measures depend on provincial governments agreeing to renegotiate terms of joint labor-market agreements.

Opposition lawmakers have criticized the government for not doing more to ease unemployment for young Canadians.