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The university degree has long been considered critical to professional success. Generations of graduates believed that hallowed piece of paper served as a one-way ticket to gainful employment. For hiring managers, it was a tool for effective recruitment.

Today’s labour market however, has both parties — employers and graduates — unfulfilled; a 2015 study of Youth In Transition concluded that while 84% of educators felt graduates were prepared to enter the workforce, only 44% of employers agreed.

In order to close the distance between educated graduate and effective employee, the university model is adapting, finding ways to sharpen students’ social and emotional aptitudes along with their academic intelligence.

Work Integrated Learning

Work Integrated Learning (WIL) looks to create a bridge between employers and educators. It facilitates communication surrounding the job market, addresses short-term staffing needs and allows students to apply the theoretical knowledge they learn in school in practical, professional settings.

Despite the clear benefits of these relationships, student participation is not where it could be. According to a 2014 employer survey by Universities Canada, 80% of respondents view students involved in WIL as a valuable hiring source, yet recent data synthesized by the Business Council of Canada for the Business/Higher Education Roundtable in 2016, show that only half of firms are engaged in some form of co-operative learning. The BHER hope to bring this number to 100%, ensuring all students have access to mentorship and hands-on experience before graduation.

International Education Opportunities

While work experience can give job-seekers an edge in an aggressive market, applicants with world experience may also have a major advantage in the hiring process. Eighty-percent of employers surveyed by the Canadian Bureau of International Education agreed that employees with international and intercultural experiences boost company competitiveness. Study abroad programs promote adaptability, empathy, cultural awareness and an ability to think outside the classroom that is coveted by employers in an increasingly global economy.

Data collected by the European Commission echoes these results, showing that graduates with international backgrounds are awarded greater responsibility in the workplace. Even though these personally enriching experiences have proven to be incredibly attractive to employers, only 2.3% of Canadian undergraduate students participated in international education programs in the 2014-2015 school year.

Certifications and Acknowledgements

A relatively new trend gaining popularity among colleges and universities is the acknowledgment of students’ soft skills through the use of digital badges and co-curricular records. Though not credited, these awards encourage community engagement and give hiring managers an important glimpse into what interpersonal abilities a candidate could bring to their team.

George Brown College has begun issuing Research and Innovation Badges to recognize the valuable life learning experiences undertaken by students that do not appear on their transcripts. Several other Canadian post-secondary institutions including Trent, Concordia and the University of Toronto offer online platforms that allow students to compile and manage a log of their extracurricular activities.

These co-curricular records ultimately provide graduates with an interpersonal resume to present to potential employers, an asset in a time where relational skills may be as important academic performance. While data surrounding these initiatives is limited, it is likely that they do make an impression on employers: A 2015 study cited by the Business Higher Education Roundtable evaluating the value of co-curricular records, found that 77% of employers would be likely to consider a co-curricular record if provided by a job candidate.

Beyond Post-Secondary Education

Though traditional Post-Secondary Education models continue to adapt to the changing demands of the labour market, the traditional track from high school to more school may not be right for everyone. There are plenty of alternative paths to professional success where young Canadians can thrive.

Taking a “Gap Year” to travel, work and explore potential career paths between college and university appears to be gaining traction in North America and might result in favorable academic and job outcomes down the line. According to the American Gap Association, students who take a gap year perform above average academically, and 86% report high career satisfaction after graduation.

Apprenticeships offer participants the unique opportunity to “earn while they learn,” offsetting living costs and gaining valuable on-the-job experience. Statistics Canada reports that in 2013, there were nearly 470,000 registrants in such programs.

There are also options for budding Canadian entrepreneurs eager to start their own businesses rather than pursue higher education. Many youth-centered organizations including Futurpreneur exist to offer support and several loan, grant, and mentorship opportunities can provide young business owners with collateral and education to help them along the way.

In a world where innovation is near constant, the value of education – tradtional or nontraditional — cannot be overlooked; however, in order to ensure that workers retain their relevance, educators and employers must continue to collaborate and find meaningful ways to foster the social and emotional skills that allow graduates to thrive in a fast-paced, highly dynamic job market.