B.C. leads country for underemployment

Province’s university grads face unique challenges finding work that matches their degrees 
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Students are making their way back to school and thousands of B.C. freshmen are taking a seat in their first university lecture hall. When these students look to the person sitting on their right, and left, they may not know that at least one of the three of them will be underemployed after graduation, in a job that doesn’t make use of their academic skills and training.

While British Columbia leads other provinces with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, it also leads with the highest underemployment rate. According to Statistics Canada, B.C. has the lowest number of university graduates working in careers that utilize their bachelor’s degree. The same data shows only 57% of workers with a university degree had jobs that required their respective undergraduate diploma.

This compared with the least-underemployed region of Atlantic Canada, where 78% of university grads have appropriate skill-level jobs – 33% more than B.C. Alberta had the second-highest level of underemployment, with 64% of university grads working in appropriate jobs.

Hayley Lohn, a 26-year-old digital marketing professional, had difficulty finding a job that utilized her bachelor’s degree in the social sciences.

“A lot of employers are seeking technical skill out of millennials,” said Lohn. “It all depends what you study, but since I did social studies it was pretty difficult to apply just writing a thousand essays for four years to a defined job.”

Alan Kearns, managing partner of career coaching company CareerJoy, said not only are employers seeking skilled and educated employees but, because of the oversupply of educated candidates, they have the luxury of choosing only well-rounded candidates.

While there are many graduates with high academic scores, employers can be picky and look for people who have developed skills obtained outside the classroom.

“It’s just the reality: there’s more supply than demand in every single sector,” said Kearns.

While Lohn cites her social studies degree as part of the reason she had difficulty finding employment, she says similar problems would have likely occurred with a more technical degree.

“I think about friends I know that have undergrads in chemistry and physics, which is so different than what I studied,” she said. “And I still know some of them that work at Value Village and grocery stores.”

Vancouver’s current business landscape is at least in part responsible for the higher underemployment level, said Kearns.

“How many head offices do you see in Vancouver?” he asked. “The more corporate head offices, the more professional kinds of opportunities you have.”

This, however, accounts for only part of the problem. Not only are there not as many jobs for university graduates, but there are an increasing number of graduates in B.C. looking for jobs. Why aren’t the new graduates following the jobs available outside of the province?

Danielle van Jaarsveld, human resource professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, said people aren’t leaving B.C. because they really want to live in Vancouver – in other words, they’re willing to take any job to continue living in the area.

Kearns agrees, saying many people who come to the West Coast to attend school often end up staying for the lifestyle.

“They end up trading professional opportunity for personal lifestyle,” he said.

Young people aren’t the only ones suffering from underemployment. Van Jaarsveld said women and Canadian immigrants are disproportionately affected by it.

Over the past decade women have started graduating from universities at rates greater than men, according to Statistics Canada. When paired with the longstanding structural inequalities within the labour market and corporate hiring practices, it’s no surprise that underemployment disproportionately affects women.

Immigrants make up 60% of the people who are either underemployed or unemployed, according to a 2015 Conference Board of Canada report.

Additionally, immigrants have been driving B.C.’s population growth for some time. In 2016, new international immigrants accounted for 50% of Vancouver’s population growth, and 30% were interprovincial migrants. This also contributes to the province’s higher underemployment levels.

Van Jaarsveld said several factors can contribute to why someone is underemployed. On one side, labour supply reasons like workforce preferences can increase the number of people working jobs that are not utilizing their education. But it also has to do with how companies are structured.

On the other side, structural reasons – including how companies are creating new positions and decisions they’re making about whether it’s going to be a full-time, part-time or contract job – can also contribute to underemployment, she said.

Underemployment isn’t limited to over-education and working at a job beneath one’s training level. It also comes in the form of part-time employment instead of full-time jobs.

Full-time employment has seen relatively steady growth over the past 10 years, increasing 5% in 2016 from 2011. However, part-time jobs have seen greater growth since the Great Recession, increasing 15% in 2016 from 2007. This year B.C. began to see significantly greater growth in full-time jobs than in part-time jobs, with the former growing by 5% and the latter dropping 2%.

A 2014 Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development report highlighted both short- and long-term steps countries could take to deal with the problem of underemployment. Short-term goals included boosting aggregate demand so people can spend more as well as improving and increasing funding for employment and education services. Some long-term strategies include setting adequate levels of benefits and minimum wage while containing non-wage costs. 

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