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To degree or not to degree

by | Jan 4, 2024 | Campus, Education, In The Mag!, Politics | 0 comments

The bachelor’s degree may be dead, but your skills and experiences are immortal

MacEwan’s towers aren’t ivory — even from far away, you can tell they’re built with concrete and rebar. But, they’re the first things people notice about the school, even before they see it in person. High school students see the towers’ silhouettes on MacEwan brochures, investors see them on the corners of proposals, and engineers have them in a logo next to their name in email signoffs. Even the name of the campus bar references them. They’re also the first thing I see when I’m walking on 104th Avenue as I head to class. I always notice those concrete towers which are further away than they seem, along with the giant clock that’s rather hard to hear ticking.

When the Ram family came to Alberta in the 80s, those towers and that clock hadn’t even been built yet. Rohit and Anjila Ram were new Canadians with a Canadian dream and no post-secondary education, living in the boom-or-bust town of Red Deer, Alta. While they worked as janitors at a meat packing plant called Fletchers (now known as Olymel), the couple eventually built the kind of life synonymous with that Canadian dream. They had steady careers, they owned their house, and they had three children who they sent to a good Catholic school (even though they are Hindu), so they could get a good education and go to university.

“If you’ve had to turn down other life experiences in order to get those grades, you might be doing a disservice to yourself.”

Tami Ambury, experiential learning facilitator at MacEwan

Their son Raynesh Ram first started at MacEwan in 2014 in open studies. When I meet him in Allard Hall, it’s a warm day in November, and he talks about how the whole building hadn’t even opened yet when he first declared his major in sociology. He also talks a lot about how he loves school and education, and how that came from his parents.

“I still believe it’s one of the best things you can do for yourself,” Ram says.

But after his 2020 graduation, Ram found himself in a tough situation as the COVID-19 pandemic was at its peak. Despite applying for over 300 jobs, Ram had no work lined up, not even so much as an interview. Even his brother with a degree in engineering wasn’t finding work after graduation. 

“I was driving with my dad. I was super stressed out, and there was COVID and whatever. We’re driving, and my dad’s like, ‘How’s the job market going?’”

Ram says that he broke out into tears and told his father, “I don’t have a job; no one’s offering me a job, no one’s offering me an interview. I’m not getting anything out of this… I think this degree was a waste of time.”

A couple of weeks later, MacEwan mailed Ram his degree in a Canada post box with a graduate’s cap and some stickers. It was called his “curbside convocation,” and he was encouraged to take pictures and send them to MacEwan.

“I looked at it, and I was like, I don’t even really have a job, like, I don’t care about this right now.”

It’s mid-afternoon, I’m sitting in Deville Coffee, and the sun blisters the corner of my eye while I wait to meet Annette Trimbee, MacEwan’s president. Yesterday was the State of the University Address, where Trimbee spoke in front of staff, stakeholders, and students about some of the things coming down the pipeline for the university, like the new business building. When Trimbee gets here, she offers to buy me coffee, which I decline. She describes the current place MacEwan is in as a “watershed moment.”

“I think we’re a very unique type of university, and I think we’re really what students in this city and this province are looking for.”

Dr. Annette Trimbee, president of MacEwan

“I like water analogies because I’m a water scientist, so I can’t help but use them,” she says. “I think of flow. [MacEwan’s location] used to be trains everywhere, where trains were flowing. Or, this is the heart of the city, Ward O-day’min, which means ‘the heart to which the north Saskatchewan River runs.’ So, I think of watershed and energy and flow all going together.”

MacEwan is at a moment of unprecedented growth. It’s set to reach its ambitious goal of 30,000 students by 2030 and is expecting a new business building, which the province pledged $125 million to help build. More and more students are choosing MacEwan, and it is literally growing in every facet, from the number of faculty to the number of restaurants on campus.

“Everything has to scale in sync,” Trimbee says. So, it’s all expanding, and the province is buying into it at a strange time for post-secondary institutions in this country.

In 2021, Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont. filed for insolvency and creditor protection. Green Party MP Elizabeth May called it “the canary in our educational coal mine.” All the while, nationally and provincially, public spending on post-secondary institutions has staggered or slowed down despite more and more Canadians desiring education. But MacEwan still grows. 

“I think we’re a very unique type of university,” Trimbee says. “And I think we’re really what students in this city and this province are looking for.”

“I think that there was a time when a bachelor’s degree really set you apart because it was less common.”

Chloe Chalmers, interim director of Careers and Experiences at MacEwan

MacEwan is different. It’s wholeheartedly committed to one thing: providing an excellent school for undergraduate degrees. There are no master’s degrees, faculty spend time teaching rather than hiding away and doing research, and MacEwan is a known leader for implementing work-integrated learning and field placements. Graduates indicate a high level of success, with 91 per cent finding jobs after graduation, with only a quarter of those jobs not being related to their field. But, as good as that all is, a university education doesn’t match the demand of the labour market right now.

It’s three years since Raynesh Ram graduated, and the worst of the pandemic is over; it’s back to business as usual. The bipolar Alberta economy is currently set to its “boom” function as oil and gas drive the resource economy. There are 100,000 job openings in the province and it’s a different world than three years ago with new problems. Nearly $13 billion was lost across Canada in 2022 in the manufacturing sector due to a labour shortage. 

A “grey wave” is on the horizon. Baby boomers, who were the driving workforce of the country’s trades and manufacturing labour economy for the last 30 to 40 years, are beginning to retire. Last year, one in five Canadians of working age were aged 55 to 64 — an all-time high in the history of the Canadian census.

It’s so much so that Rajan Sawhney, the minister of Advanced Education for Alberta, recently announced another $12.2 million investment for 2,000 apprenticeships, bringing the total investment for apprentices this year up to $54 Million.

“This is not just an oil and gas issue…. There’s a huge demand from businesses looking to hire, while at the same time, workers with those skills have decreased or remained flat.” Economics expert Alicia Planincic told the Edmonton Journal.

Given these numbers, one might think today’s youth ought to have their pick of any job they so choose. But, despite the number of jobs open, Alberta’s unemployment rate is higher than both B.C., Ontario, and the national average. In an OECD report that analyzed thousands of digital job listings in the province, OECD said, “​​it is fundamental for education systems to ensure that individuals can build the skills that are currently needed in the labour market by firms and employers.” The most recent Alberta snapshot from the Business Council of Alberta says the challenge will be, “matching employer needs with the aptitudes, skills, and interests of unemployed Albertans.”

“Universally, soft skills are required.”

Bill Matthews, community partnership coordinator

Most of the men in Ram’s family work in the trades; his uncle is a mechanic, his other uncle is a contractor, and his father has also been a mechanic. But, when I asked him about trades work, he said that he’s not good with his hands, and that it didn’t interest him. When I asked him about the culture in the trades, he said that was also a concern.

Jesse Miller graduated from Barrhead Composite High School in 2014 and quickly found work right out of high school. He didn’t have any intention of attending post-secondary; he wasn’t sure if his grades were good enough, and he craved independence.

“I was kind of told growing up that you essentially have like two paths. You either get into a trade and work really hard at that, and essentially work right out of high school and take that route, or you go to school and find a specialized career.”

Plumbing was Miller’s trade of choice. He quickly found a job after high school and was able to move out of his parent’s home, own a car, and lead a lifestyle that he was comfortable with. After two years of plumbing in Barrhead, things slowed down, so he came to the city. He found work in Sherwood Park, but something was grinding on Miller. He was beginning to question the only path he had considered for himself.

Sitting in a video call, Miller tells me that he doesn’t consider himself a “man’s man.” He says he’s comfortable with his sexuality, vegan, and passionate about positive social change and community. He loves Lord of the Rings and Dungeons and Dragons, and dressed as an elf for Halloween. He tells me that he could not fit in with the culture that came with trades jobs.

“A lot of those characters who work in those fields tend to be a lot more shielded or brash, or just straight up bigoted. I’m just not that kind of person,” says Miller. “Overworking, working, you know, very frequently 10- to 14-hour days with some interesting characters was not necessarily my cup of tea, but it took me a few years to figure it out.”

The breaking point for Miller was at one of his company’s usual morning tailgate meetings. Anybody who’s worked a job in this sector knows what these are like. It’s a daily brief before the day gets started while people are still trickling in, and everyone is sipping extra-large double-doubles from Tim’s while shooting the shit. Miller was just walking in when he heard the conversation of the day.

“You really have to bust your ass, man, somehow and get like, extracurricular, know people, whatever, to really get into a job that you really want with a sociology degree.”

Raynesh Ram, MacEwan communications student

One of the co-owners was telling a story about how the other co-owner tried to hit and kill a cat while driving to work that morning. Apparently, he just hated cats.

“So [he] starts telling this weird, bragging story about how when he lived on a farm because things were different back then or whatever, whenever they found that one of the farm cats had kittens, they’d put them in a pillowcase and drown them in the bathtub.”

“And [the other employees] were all just like cracking jokes about it, thinking it was super funny, and I could tell a couple of the guys in the group were uncomfortable about it. Rightfully so! But, I was disgusted with it.”

Miller wasn’t even vegan at the time, but that was the breaking point for him and trades. It’s not the only poor experience Miller had. He recalls other times he’s encountered bigotry, in a hostile work environment, and has friends who mirror his experiences. Jesse Miller is now hoping to attend MacEwan University, starting post-secondary for the first time in the winter semester. He wants to work in something that he cares about that’s more aligned with his interests.

Miller admits he has some anxiety about what he might do post-graduation, but he’s willing to take the risk to better his overall quality of life. 

“I think that there was a time when a bachelor’s degree really set you apart because it was less common,” says Chloe Chalmers, interim director for MacEwan’s Centre for Careers and Experience. 

When we sit down for an interview in the centre’s well-decorated offices, we are joined by Tami Ambury, an experiential learning facilitator and Bill Matthews, the community partnership developer. All three of them agree about the state of undergraduate degrees.

“My brother and sister and I both did degrees at UBC, one in biology and one in anthropology, archaeology. And, they both are extraordinarily successful business people,” says Ambury, noting her siblings’ only credentials for securing their first job were bachelor’s degrees.

“It didn’t even matter what it was in.”

Chalmers says it’s increasingly becoming the minimum qualification for a lot of jobs. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean the master’s is the new bachelor’s.

“Doing a master’s degree is no guarantee that you’re gonna get a job either,” says Ambury. “It’s not to diminish other levels of education. I think it’s just, what does a person want? And why did they think they needed that degree? Or could they do it in a different way?”

If more and more people are going to be stacking up impressive pieces of paper, those impressive pieces of paper and the schools attached to them will matter less. But, even if the value of a bachelor’s degree is dead, your skills and experiences are immortal.

When asked about what employers are looking for, Matthews says, “Universally, soft skills are required.” Sure, it’s the bingo buzzword of the day, but soft skills are at the top of employer’s minds.

Trimbee says, “They’re not soft; they’re durable.”

While the Careers and Experience Centre is known for things like resume help and career coaching, it’s become increasingly invested in something called work-integrated learning (WIL). WIL provides real projects from the community that present real challenges and work experience as projects for students while they are still in the classroom. It helps build connections and skills (both soft and hard), but Chalmers says it also helps with students’ confidence.

“I was kind of told growing up that you essentially have like two paths. You either get into a trade and work really hard at that, and essentially work right out of high school and take that route, or you go to school and find a specialized career.”

Jesse Miller, MacEwan applicant

Just over the past year, there has been a 78 per cent increase in community-engaged learning and the centre has made 500 community partners in the past five years.

“MacEwan’s kind of at the forefront of this,” says Ambury. “We are considered one of the leaders in this type of work integrated learning, which gives our students more opportunities more frequently.”

On top of WIL, MacEwan is planning to up its field placement game. Trimbee also says that she hopes that 50 per cent of all programs will have options for some sort of practical on-the-job learning, whether through field placements, co-op programs, or WIL. The combination is a triple threat on top of a bachelor’s degree that would give MacEwan students an edge over graduates who only focused on academics.

“A lot of parents say, ‘No, don’t worry about working, we’re going to cover all your [expenses] for you, you don’t need to work. Just focus on your studies. Don’t volunteer because that’s going to take time away from your studies. You just need to get A’s…,” Ambury says. “If you’ve had to turn down other life experiences in order to get those grades, you might be doing a disservice to yourself.”

Experiences and skills matter the most, so developing those in addition to your bachelor’s is how undergraduates are going to find employment. WIL is just one way to do this; volunteer opportunities, internships, field placements, and everything else you could learn and grow as a person from doing is going to give students the edge. 

You hear it all the time: the bachelor’s is the new high school diploma, and the amount of time students spend in education or training before they are independent is increasing. The cost of living increases, tuition increases, and it’s no wonder more young Canadians live at home. It’s taking more time, effort, and training to reach that middle-class Canadian dream. The clock is ticking, and it’s getting harder to reach the durable concrete towers our parents’ generation had built. 

Ram says, “You really have to bust your ass, man, somehow and get like, extracurricular, know people, whatever, to really get into a job that you really want with a sociology degree.”

Working with the careers and experience centre helped Ram land his first job related to his field. It was at a non-profit charity that helps children with autism. It paid minimum wage, and he was ecstatic.

“I was so happy because I don’t know — it kind of reaffirmed like, hey, maybe there is a path in this field.”

But, after a couple of years working in the non-profit sector, Ram is back at MacEwan, starting a new degree. The non-profit sector posed its own set of challenges: low income, difficult employment situations, exhaustion of empathy, and a shortage of high-quality jobs. 

Ram is in the communications program and has a better idea of what he wants. Even though he is one of 1.9 million Canadians owing the federal government a total of $23.5 billion, and pays roughly 25 per cent more in tuition than when he first started at MacEwan, he says that he’s not worried about the debt anymore. 

Ram also isn’t worried about the ticking of the clock, or about reaching those concrete towers. His parents are as supportive as ever — he’s determined to keep at it. 

“I think it’s only motivated me to either get, not only this degree, but either a master’s degree or another degree or another diploma or something, and just keep building off of it overall. You know, just keep coming back. And, I guess trying again and again.”

Despite everything, Ram says, “It’s still a dream worth striving for, man.”

Photo by Sam Poier

Liam Newbigging

The Griff


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